March Memories, Musings, and Meanderings
March is, at least in the South where Iíve always lived, something of a messy month. The weather is variable and unpredictable. Right now itís predicted to reach 80 degrees here today, the redbuds are on the verge of bloom, and we have bluebirds giving serious thoughts to nesting. Yet I wouldnít be at all surprised if we have a heavy frost within a week, and snow is by no means an impossibility. Twice during my boyhood growing up in the Smokies, a wet March snow made a terrific mess of everything, and unlike earlier snows, not even those of us who got out of school welcomed it. After all, small game season was at an end, weíd already had a good dose of snow-based fun in the form of things like sledding and snow cream, and awareness of the fact that missed school days would have to be made up (in trout season, no less) were cause for dismay.
The unfortunate reality of March is that it is a month between good timesóthe small game hunting and stark joys of the grey woods of winter in January and February and turkey hunting, trout fishing , and all the glories of spring in April and May. As Grandpa Joe would have put it: ďWhatís a body to do?Ē Well, in truth thereís a bunch of opportunities for those who enjoy hunting, fishing, and general dealings with the good earth. Letís look at some of those from the perspective of memory along with what the month of March holds in store for me.
At present the ground is absolutely saturated, and that means postponing, for longer than Iíd like, getting in early crops in the gardenóitís time to plant all sorts of spring vegetables such as taters, spinach, black-seeded Simpson lettuce, mustard and turnip greens, onions, cabbage, broccoli, and cauliflower, but theyíll have to wait until things dry out a bit. Meanwhile, thereís plenty of piddling to be done in the way of cleaning up trash; doing a bit of burning, mulching the raspberries, thornless blackberries, and blueberries; and lining up my defenses against deer. My war with whitetails is an ongoing one, and truth be told Iíve been in retreat (though not abject defeat) for years.
Speaking of battles with critters, my current focal point in terms of animal enemies isnít limited to deer. Squirrels have overpopulated to the point where they have become an absolute nuisance, and let me assure you that bushytails arenít lacking in survival instincts. Catch one or two in a trap and they avoid it like the plague. All I have to do is step around the corner of the house with a shotgun in hand and they light a shuck for the next county (but if Iím unarmed they merely stare at me, no doubt thinking, ďthat fool canít bother us right nowĒ). I donít reckon the neighbors are overly enamored of me blasting away at bushytails, but Iím tired of being unable to grow corn (the squirrels wait until the ears reach ďin the milkĒ perfection and then wipe out the crop in a day or two), seeing the varmints take a bite or two out of a tomato and then discard it, and generally wreaking havoc with all sorts of gardening ventures. In other words, itís shoot on sight.
Far more pleasant is the contemplation of what Iíll plant in the garden this year, what new varieties of heirloom tomatoes Iíll try, thoughts about how to stake my oldĖtime mountain half-runner beans (creasy beans, as folks in the high country style them), and contemplation of things like a banner crop of blueberries or holding high hopes for efforts to root a bunch of varieties of muscadines.
Another type of musing is pure magic. It focuses on the upcoming turkey season. My plans, while still being finalized, involve trips to Alabama, Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, and of course hunts here close to home. I donít travel as much as I once did. Flying has become a flat-out hassle, and TSA and its supervisory body Homeland Security, are in my view about as close to a police-state mentality as I ever want to come. Itís hard to control oneís tongue when dealing with power-crazy mental midgets (most of them compensate for mental shortcomings with plenty of extra body weight), and if you happen to be checking a gun the hassle equation multiplies exponentially. Just try explaining to a mental midget why you canít open the breech of a muzzleloader to prove it is not loaded! Add to that the fact that you cannot mail anything from home which weighs more than 11 ounces, and that pretty much means any and all book shipments require me to travel to the local post office to mail them, and you get my drift. That rule on mailing packages incidentally, doesnít come from the USPS, although that organization is about as inept an example of bureaucratic madness as one can imagine. It is dictated by Homeland Security.
Enough ranting, although I suspect some of you have experienced frustration similar to mine in dealing with TSA. Letís talk turkey and think good thoughts. As usual, I anticipate the seasonís opening with great eagerness, a sort of Christmas in the spring kind of excitement and anticipation. In fact I just wrote a little piece along that line for the NRAís American Hunter, one of three articles on turkey hunting Iíve done for those folks this spring. Then too, twice over the past week Iíve enjoyed wonderful conversations with one of the sportís true gentlemen and a true old master, Earl Groves. Earl was a key figure (some would argue, with considerable validity, that he was the key person) in the National Wild Turkey Federationís founding, and he has been a dedicated turkey hunter for many decades.
He told me that last season, with two minutes of legal hunting time left on the last day of his 2011 hunting, that he shot his 600th career longbeard. Figure it any way you want to, with due recognition being give to the fact Earl hasnít shot any jakes, and thatís a total which is little short of incredible. It involves a great deal of travel, worlds of dedication, a wealth of experience, and an exceptional level of skill. I plan to get together with Earl for lunch in the next week or twoóhe lives not far from me, just across the state line into North Carolina--and Iím sure our ďturkey talkĒ will get both of us primed for the rites of spring.
One reason for our meeting focuses on his close friendship with the late Ben Rodgers Lee, who will be the subject of one of the chapters in my next book, Remembering the Greats: Profiles of Turkey Huntingís Old Masters (let me know if you want to be notified when it comes out, likely sometime in late summer or early fall). I want to get some anecdotes and insights from Earl to give the chapter some extra ďhuman element.Ē
Iíll also be picking up some copies of his fine book, Tom Foolery 2000: A Complete Guide to Turkey Hunting Tactics for the Twenty-first Century. The 354-page book is a dandy, full of practical wisdom and grand tales, and if you havenít read it a treat awaits you.
Iím making it my special offering for this month. Signed copies are only $16 and Iíll pay the shipping. Just order through my Web site or send me a check for that amount (c/o 1250 Yorkdale Drive, Rock Hill, SC 29730).
There will be other chats of a similar nature with local buddies, and already fellow sporting scribe Jim Spencer and his wife, Jill Easton, and I have exchanged thoughts and anticipatory contemplations about what lies ahead. Weíll actually be sharing a few days of hunting while in east Tennessee late next month. Jill is the current president of the Southeastern Outdoor Press Association and Iím a member of the organizationís board, and we are combining our mid-year meeting with a chance to chase gobblers in the hollows and ridges around Elizabethton, Tennessee. Similarly, noted callmaker and good friend Darrin Dawkins and I will have some chats, Iíll likely attend the local NWTF chapterís annual banquet next week, and thereís scouting to be done.
Add to those considerations the annual ritual of organizing my gear, patterning my gun (Iíve killed dozens of turkeys with the current favorite, a Remington 11-87, but still feel better shooting it a few times before the season), getting everything I need in my vest, and doing a bit of practice on my calling. When it comes to the vest, I actually have a printed checklist and thatís something I recommend. Maybe you are a minimalist who can remember all the items of gear you need, but I need help making sure Iíve got four kinds of calls, pruning shears, flashlight with extra batteries, turkey tote, compass, a grocery bag or two in case I run across some morel mushrooms, folding stool, cigarette lighter (I always want a way to make a fire), Thermocell unit with extra scent wafers, extra mask and gloves, and much more. On the calling front Iím not a big one for driving my spouse nuts with yelps and clucks, and I long since recognized my efforts will never rise to the competition level of calling. They do occasionally suffice to fool the ultimate judges though, those which spend the nights in trees.
Interestingly enough, all of this March focus on turkey hunting has not always been a part of my life as a sportsman. I never even saw a wild turkey until I was in my early 30s, and I was in my mid-30s before I started hunting them. Since that first introduction though, theyíve held a firm hold on a corner of my soul, and I donít expect that will ever change. In that regard my turkey hunting mentor, Parker Whedon, set me down a path which has become an integral, important, and glorious part of my life. Thoughts of Parker and the impending season are bittersweet, because this grand old master of the sport has come to the end of his hunting road, and I expect any day to get sad news of his passing. I said my good-byes a few months back in a visit to the rest home where was being cared for, and fortunately he was alert and we were able to turn a few pages from shared joys in yesteryear before he tired and nodded off to sleep. Maybe I should have visited him since then, but regular updates from a mutual friend tell me he sleeps most of the time and infrequently recognizes visitors. Iím just one of those who canít bring myself to face that situation with one of the most vibrant personalities Iíve ever known and a turkey hunter for the ages.
Since Iíve wandered into the area of cherished memories, Iíll reach back even farther to conclude this monthís newsletter. This reaches all the way back to the spring of 1958 when I was a high school sophomore. One of the required courses for sophomores in those days was general biology, and the man who taught the course was, in my view, a pedagogical genius. For an energetic, outdoors-loving individual like me, the main class project for the spring semester was a godsend. Mr. Clifford Frizzell, after having dealt with the animal world in the fall (we dissected a frog, studied natural selection, and the like), turned to plants in the spring.
Since the setting was the Great Smokies, the most ecologically diverse area in the entire Northern Hemisphere, he mandated that we collected leaves and/or flowers from as many plants as possible, identifying them by both their common and scientific names. For extra credit students could describe ways in which the plants could be used by humans. This was decades before any thoughts of the Internet, Wikipedia, Google, or anything like that, and even if they had existed the basic research required spending time in the fields and woods. You could almost say that for me that was an assignment made in Heaven. Also, I could turn to Dad and Grandpa Joe for information on the practical uses of plants, because both of them were walking encyclopedias of folklore, folk medicinal practices, and the like.
Mind you, I didnít have to be told that dogwood made fine slingshots or that persimmon wood was used in golf clubs, nor was I unfamiliar with the culinary joys of ramps or poke sallet. I also knew that sweet shrub was colloquially known as ďbubbies,Ē but it took a hint from Grandpa to clue me into the fact that ladies once had been wont to stick the aromatic flower between their breasts (i.e., bubbies or boobs) as a bit of homemade deodorant. You can imagine how such offbeat information tickled the fancy of a high school boy. But there was more serious knowledge of all sorts, and I still look back fondly on that whole research project and the manner in which it let the woods become a classroom. I know of no seat of learning where there is more education to be attained or where, thankfully, graduation day never arrives.
Iíll leave you with that thought and hopes that you derive something approaching the delight from spring that I do. Of course, we need a few recipes as well, so here are some featuring natureís bounty as it is offered up in the joyous months of spring.
RANCH TURKEY STRIPS
1 teaspoon of a packet of Ranch Original Dry Salad Dressing Mix
Combine dressing mix with olive oil. Marinate turkey strips for 15 minutes. Grill 10-12 minutes in frying pan, grilling pan, broiler, or over an outdoor grill. Serve immediately.
TURKEY TENDERS PARMESAN
1 egg, beaten
Add egg to ranch dressing. Mix bread crumbs and Parmesan cheese. Dip turkey strips in dressing/egg mixture. Then dredge in crumbs/Parmesan cheese mixture. Place olive oil in a non-stick frying pan. Be sure olive oil is hot before adding strips. Brown turkey on both sides and cook until turkey runs clear. If turkey is not tender enough (and the breast of an old gobbler wonít be), cover pan and simmer a few minutes. You can also pound the strips with a meat hammer before preparing them for frying.
ďKILTĒ WILD GREENS
Harvest wild spring greens and vegetable such as dandelion leaves, watercress, branch lettuce (saxifrage), lambís quarter, ramps and the like. Wash clean and dry gently with a cloth or paper towel. Fry bacon strips until crisp, then crumble the bacon in the grease which has cooked out of the meat. If there is too much oil, strain some of it off. Pour the hot bacon and grease across the greens, add croutons if desired, and eat immediately. This is an old favorite in the Smokies, where I grew up.
Gather a good mess of the ender young shoots of poke weed. Wash the shoots and then bring a pan of water to a rolling boil before adding the poke. Bring it back to a boil and then pour off the water. Repeat the process. Drain a second time and the third time add some streaked meat (fatback) and simmer gently. If desired, top with slices of boiled egg when served, and add salt and pepper to taste.
CLAM STUFFED MORELS
10 medium to large fresh morel mushrooms, sliced in half lengthwise
Clean mushrooms well and remove stems. Cut in half lengthwise and chop the stems up finely. Melt butter, add minced garlic and mushroom stems and sautť 8-10 minutes or until stems are tender. Drain clams and add to skillet with onions, parsley and salt and pepper to taste. Sautť 5 minutes. Stuff morel halves with clam mixture and place in a greased baking dish. Combine the mayonnaise and mustard and top each stuffed morel half with a dollop. Bake 10-15 minutes at 350 degrees. Serve immediately.
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