Friday, September 25, 2009

Nebraska: A Epicurean Epilogue

When my mind isn't consumed by chasing tail (of the avian variety), my stomach is probably consumed with, well, consuming.  If you don't believe me, just look at the "tag cloud" off to the right to see what I write most about.

That certainly applied to last week's hunting trip to the Nebraska Sandhills.  I love to cook great food, and it always seems to taste better after a hard day afield.  The key is prep -- most of what I make can be prepared ahead of time and quickly grilled or boiled into a tasty and filling meal.  Here was our evening meal menu:

WEDNESDAY:  Sharptail Grouse and Roasted Garlic Sausage, Jalapeno Poppers, Twice Baked Potatoes
THURSDAY:  Grilled Axis T-Bones, Fresh Basil Pesto Angel Hair Pasta, Sliced Heirloom Tomatoes
FRIDAY:  Applewood Smoked St. Louis Style Ribs with Potato and Macaroni Salad

And eating local cuisine is part of the whole experience for me, too.  On the way to Halsey, I anticipated stopping in Mason City -- just west of Grand Island -- for a perfectly prepared charburger at the Crow Bar, chased down with a cold draft beer.  It wasn't to be.  The Crow Bar was apparently a victim of the economy, shut up tighter than Dick's hatband with a big FOR SALE sign propped in the window.  Sad... it was a sometimes-haunt of mine when I was home from school during the steamy summers of the late 80s.  Once again, more proof that you never can go back home.

Thankfully, just a few clicks down the road in Broken Bow, we hit paydirt:  Runza.  For those who know Runza, the name signifies Nebraska-grown goodness -- ground beef, onions, and cabbage gently nestled within a pillowy roll of goodness.  For those who don't know Runza, the name typically conjures the effects of E. coli O157 -- not something that encourages epicurean exploration.  Anyhow, if you get to Nebraska, seek one out.  They even sell them inside Memorial Stadium.

On the way back to Kansas City, I timed us to arrive in Grand Island over the noon hour for a trip to the legendary Coney Island Lunch Room.  In business since 1933, this is one of those places that refuses to change.  And good thing.  It's run by Gus Katrouzos, who took over the business from his father, and Gus will no doubt pass it on to his son George.  Both men were happily working on this Husker Saturday, and both remembered me from years ago.  Like Gus and George, the "decor" and waitresses are the same that I remember way back when, too. 

And then there's the food.  The menu is limited, but who cares?  All I've ever had are the amazing Coney dogs (2 on 1), fresh hand-cut fries, and a malt made from a classic Sunbeam milkshake machine.  (In fact, it's about the only time I subject my lactose-intolerant stomach to such a treat.)

"The Coney" also holds a great deal of sentimental value to me as well.  Eighteen years ago, Mrs. Scampwalker and I got engaged there.  I came in ahead of time and talked Gus into helping me pop the question.  When we came in later that day, Gus served the engagment ring nestled amid a heaping plateful of french fries.  She said yes -- but I suspect maybe the Coney dog might have sealed the deal.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Nebraska Sandhills Hunt: A Photo Essay

It's time to end the chapter on the first big hunting trip of the 2009-2010 season. While the bird gods didn't shine favorably on us, it was a memorable hunt nonetheless. Here's a photo-essay of the trip.

We made it to the Bessey Branch of the Nebraska National Forest on Wednesday afternoon with high hopes.  Accompanying me were Vernon and Steve (hunting buddies and associates from Gun Dog Supply, pictured here) along with Bryan, a colleague from work).  So this was all business, folks...

Of course, like any good bird hunting trip, we were supporting actors to the stars of the show -- the 15 dogs we had in tow.  In addition to Dottie and Vegas, the Mississippi contingent brought 13 dogs with them... pointers, shorthairs, labs, and a lone brittany.  We would not be left wanting for dog power.

I love the minutes before setting out on the first hunt of the day.  The air is crisp, hunters and dogs shiver in anticipation, and Mother Nature paints her scenery with a palette that accentuates the promise of the day ahead.

They don't call 'em Sandhills for nuthin'.

Thirty minutes into that first hunt, Dottie and Vegas locked up on a single, and I was fortunate enough to take him with my first shot.  This was going to be good, I thought out loud.  Little did I know that this would be the last bird anyone would take on the entire trip.

Two proud -- and hot -- pooches.

It spiked to nearly 80 degrees every day -- one of the hazards of early season prairie hunting.  Thankfully, this land featured active windmills every half mile or so.  The shorthairs never missed an opportunity for a swim -- the mossier the better.

Their handlers employed more traditional methods for cooling off.

The hot weather shut our hunting down by noon.  We all said it was for the dogs' health and safety, but these ice packs tell another story...

In the afternoons, we loafed around the cabin or tried our hand at prairie dog shooting, coyote shooting, or just plain shooting.  No critters or targets were harmed in the making of this blog post.
None of us really could understand why we didn't have better luck with the birds.  We had plenty of seasoned dogs, and the scenting conditions seemed reasonable (a slight breeze and plenty of moisture on the ground early in the day).  We talked to some wildlife biologists who said they had seen plenty of birds earlier in the summer, but also spoke with a trainer that had been visiting this area for years, who said it was one of the worst seasons he's seen for bird production.  Whatever the case, it was frustrating for us and the dogs.

But that's why they call it hunting, right?  It's the failures as much as the successes that keep us coming back for more.  That, and the camaraderie.  To say nothing of the scenery.

There Is No Place Like Nebraska.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Dispatch From the Prairie

Well, Al Gore's information superhighway hasn't quite hit Halsey, Nebraska, pop. 49. The Verizon aircard works, but at the glacial speed of a 56k modem.

So I'm writing from the Blackberry, which seems to work somewhat better, although I think photos might be pushing it.

The hunting has been tough. The weather is hot... Nearly 80 by noon, which means it's no longer smart to run the dogs. We have seen probably 20-30 sharpies, but many were skittish. I connected on one, and probably could have had my limit had I shot straighter.

All that aside, it's a great start to the season - the cameraderie and the scenery (not to mention the food) hasn't disappointed.

Coyote hunting this evening, and then a much deserved tumbler of Cazadores on ice.

More when I get back to civilization (if I decide to return...)

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Headed to God's Country

Tomorrow I'm headed to the Nebraska Sandhills for my first big hunting road trip of the season, and I simply cannot wait.  A native of central Nebraska, it didn't take much of a drive northwest to start hitting the unmistakable topography of the Sandhills, a region than encompasses more than 20,000 square miles of prairie sand dunes.  But if you think it's a barren, lunar landscape, you'd be flat wrong.

The Sandhills are fed by the massive Ogallala aquifer, and spring-fed ponds and marshes are plentiful, as are the critters and plants that inhabit this spectacular, one-of-a-kind landscape.  And, because it's desolate and not conducive to agriculture, it's pretty much the way it was hundreds, if not thousands of years ago -- minus the half-million cattle that call the region home.

Of course, it's not beef that we're seeking.  It's prairie chickens and sharptail grouse that we're after, two grassland birds that have coexisted in this area for eons.  Before the gaudy ditch parrot was introduced a hundred or so years ago, it was these birds that ruled the plains.  As modern agriculture thrived, so did the pheasant, and the prairie grouse were somewhat marginalized.

Anyhow, I've been visiting the Sandhills as long as I've been on this earth -- from fishing for lunker walleye at Merritt Reservoir to canoeing the spectacular Niobrara River.  No matter where I visit, it's this area that enchants me more than any.  I once hiked 21 miles on one hunt -- just me and the dogs -- and truthfully, I've never felt closer to God.

Stay tuned -- God and Verizon Aircard willing, I'll have some updates from the road.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Save The CRP

If you're not a farmer or hunter, then chances are you've never heard of the Conservation Reserve Program, better known as CRP. It its essence, it's a USDA program that incentivizes farmers to convert highly erodible cropland or other environmentally vulnerable acreage to grassland, trees, filter strips, or bottomland buffers. For more than 20 years, this program has been a major force in reducing soil erosion, enhancing water supplies, improving water quality, mitigating flood control, and increasing wildlife habitat of all varieties.

In my estimation, it's a poster child for how government and the private sector ought to work. But today, the program is in jeopardy. According to Pheasants Forever, over 4.2 million acres have expired, and over the next five years, another 21 million more acres are slated to expire. The reasons for this exodus from CRP are varied, but an increase in grain prices (thanks in part to increased ethanol demand) is certainly a significant culprit.

Although CRP was reauthorized in the current farm bill, its success will depend on the rules for implementation. As it stands, there is no provision for a new CRP general signup to re-enroll or replace acres that have expired. Without allowing for new enrollment, we'll continue to lose these vital acres. Of course, someone -- the taxpayer -- has to pay to put these new acres into CRP. But this is an investment in the future.

I've never been accused of being a tax-and-spend liberal, but the CRP program is almost universally hailed as a success. If you've ever walked a section of CRP, the quality of land and wildlife diversity is self-evident. Whether you're a hunter, conservationist, or environmentalist, this is one program we can all get behind. To weigh in on the issue, contact your Congressman, email, or click here to read more.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Flights Canceled Due To Fog

Here are a few photos from my Labor Day dove hunt with the kids.  It's one for the record books, but not necessarily in a good way.  Visibility was about 30 yards... and it stayed that way until nearly 10am!  I shot three times, and all were Hail Marys... to no avail.
It was fun nonetheless.  The first hunt always is -- especially when you can spend it with your two kids... we told jokes, played "I Spy," ate Sno-Balls and Honey Buns (they did anyhow), and had a generally grand time.  It makes getting skunked pretty enjoyable.  Hell, I'm just thrilled to be afield again.

Friday, September 4, 2009

It's The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year, Part Two

Tomorrow marks the beginning of college football in earnest (in Lincoln, too).  My beloved Huskers take the field against Florida Atlantic... not exactly a perennial powerhouse.  But what it lacks in marquee status it makes up for in backstory.

The FAU Owls are coached by none other than Howard Schnellenberger, that crusty old bastard that beat the undefeated Big Red back in the 1984 Orange Bowl when he coached the hated Miami Hurricanes.  So for me, this game is maybe some sort of cosmic throwback to times when we were feared.  Combine that with a season in which we'll see the 300th-consecutive sellout later this month, and make no mistake -- the days are getting brighter for the boys from Lincoln.  Here's my prognostication for the season:

Florida Atlantic: WIN (49-3)
Arkansas State: WIN (38-9)
Virginia Tech: LOSS (15-16)
Louisiana Lafayette: WIN (55-0)
Missouri: WIN
Texas Tech: WIN
Iowa State: WIN
Baylor: WIN
Oklahoma: LOSS
Kansas: WIN
Kansas State: WIN
Colorado: WIN
Big 12 Championship: LOSS

That's right, I'm drinking the Big Red Kool Aid.  A 10-3 season going into the bowl game.  Am I insane?  Probably, but that's another thing that makes this the most wonderful time of the year, doesn't it?

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

It's The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year

It's officially September... do you know where your ammo is? Yesterday marked the official start of the hunting season for pretty much all of North America. Dove season to me is a nice warm up. It's a social event as much as anything, and a chance to knock the rust off the guns. I read somewhere that the average hunter needed to expend three shells before downing one bird, which must make the ammo manufacturers really happy.

Three dove hunts stand out. The first was when I was probably my daughter's age, back at the old ammo plant outside of Grand Island. It was the first bird I ever shot, and it was a mix of elation, power, and sadness. I also remember my Dad suffering like hell through a ragweed attack.

The second hunt was one we did a few years ago with some buddies north of Manhattan. We took position around a burned wheat field. It was a great time... and the only time I can brag about taking my limit of 15 dove with one shell shy of a box (with my 28 gauge, no less). And yes, I have witnesses.

The final one was on the Nooner Ranch outside of Hondo, Texas. I never have and never will see more birds that my Dad and I saw that opening day. We shot our limit in 30 minutes or so... and that was with some pretty poor flock shooting, I suspect.

Anyhow, the season is here, and I plan on taking part very, very soon. And the opportunities only get more abundant from here. So if you see me with a little extra spring in my step, now you know why.

Be safe out there, everyone.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Gulf Coast Fishing Trip

Last week, I spent a few days down off the coast of Galveston on a fishing trip. Born and raised in the middle of the country, I'm always amazed at the new sights, sounds, and smells I encounter on the coast.

You can read all about my fishing exploits here and here in a pictoral I did for the company blog. It was a spectacular day or two on the water, and I can't wait to do it again.

Typically, on these TV trips, we practice catch-and-release whenever possible. Part of it is to set an example for viewers, but I suspect most of it has to do with the fact that we don't usually have the means to ice down our bounty and keep it cold for the trip home. That wasn't entirely true this time -- I packed a collapsable cooler in my luggage.

Although we did release the fish we caught, Captain Bill led me to Golden Seafood, an archetypical seafood shack located in Seabrook, Texas. Virtually every type of fresh fish and shellfish was there for the picking... and damn, was it cheap! I scored colossal shrimp for $5.49 a pound, and beautiful red snapper fillets for $3.49 a pound. The shrimp were wrapped in small strips of bacon with a jalapeno spear -- classic Gulf Coast style. The snapper I improvised by rolling in some homemade "blackened" cajun seasoning, and then broiling it. It turned out really well, and eliminated some of the greasyness that I sometimes get when I blacken things the old-school way.

I'll be back to the coast again soon... and this time, I'll bring a bigger cooler!