I loaded three rods in the bed of the truck, a cooler, and bait.  My mind was somewhere on the highway miles ahead as I couldn’t wait to put that seasoned pick-up in gear and push off down the hill.  The spring air was as thick as the strange green hue that peculiarly appeared with dusk.  A storm brewed off to the southeast.  Somewhere in Marshall county, somebody was getting to watch the spectacular display of lights combusting miles away in the atmosphere.  It kind of reminded me of stories from the civil war.  Legend holds that canon fire from the battlefield at Gettysburg could be heard in Pittsburgh.  One hundred and fifty miles away.

I had the windows down and hunched over at the wheel like a normally drive on longer distances.  I let that April wind pass through the cab as a welcome neighbor and watched as I got closer to the edge of the storm.  All I have is a radio.  No CD player.  Tape player doesn’t work.  My iPod Mini gave out about ten years ago.  And only one speaker functions.  I watched the little “ST” by the FM frequency flicker as the signal came in scratchy.  I could make out that sting of a hot banjo.  A hot fiddle in the back.  Maybe by the bass man.  And that sweet voice of the queen of bluegrass.  As I came through the mountain about to crest over into Lake Guntersville I barely made out something about Jesse James.  And a railroad.  And daddy.  Then the station cut out with the descent into Marshall county.  Darkness came down early and I relished in just one moment where troubles could not find me.

I wonder why it can’t always be carefree.  But in church this morning a man filled in for our pastor.  He wasn’t a preacher himself, just a guy.  He said, “Sometimes it all just comes together beautifully.”

Wouldn’t have it any other way.  “Sometimes” is better than never.


Dew Drop Falling

After a week of not having a mountain out of my sight for one single moment, I found myself back in the post-Spring break turkey woods of the deep south.  Flat, gentle sloping terrain, mixed hardwoods, pastures, and pines blanket the wire grass region of southeastern Alabama.  I missed the first few days of turkey season to a fly-fishing trip.  Just as I had expected, it was over in the blink of an eye and I returned to a summer beginning to stir.

Honey buns were down, wrappers in the floorboard of Bart’s white Ford pick-up.  Reid had me scoot the seat up so he could fit in the back, talking about how he was probably going to have to check-in to school (high school) after the hunt.  Two Remington 870’s were stuck barrel down next to me with the stocks lodged in between the arm rest and the center console.

We pulled up to a gate to a pasture and cut the truck off.  The twilight bled over the horizon of hardwoods across the dimly lit cow pasture.  We moved the gate that wasn’t even hinged to the posts and slid through making our way down a worn down cattle path that meandered between a bottom and fenced pasture.  Whispered wise cracks and insight on the mornings hunt floated around.  We talked like we “knew” what the birds were going to do.  Our boots flung dew as we kicked through grass and stumbled through the petrified footsteps of the heavy livestock.

A big oak with an overhang looking up a stair step pasture was the choice ambush point to set up.  I grabbed the bug spray out of Bart’s vest and curled my lips in and clamping my eyes down and sprayed the bitter formula all over my face and neck, down around my legs and arms.  We set up as the day broke methodically and listened.  Bart and Reid against the big oak under a stretched overhang, and myself several yards away in some shrubby thickness.

Bart is an excellent caller.  He produces a gentle sounding yelp with a melodic rhythm.  Two gobbles behind us and across a pond on the next property perked our senses.  Bart softly called.  Birds began to awake in the growth.  Beetles hovered down from the trees and took to the grass.  Mosquitos slid through the air as if floating on a breeze.

Suddenly, some distinct clucks and cuts darted from behind towards the pond.  Bart spoke back ever so timidly.  It had been so long!  The irrefutable fact of knowing turkeys are listening and pondering your place among them is why I love going after them.  My senses were fixed.  I was bursting with that lofty confidence that something might happen.  But still, the only bird gobbling was the one on the next property.

He gobbled a third time.  I looked at Bart as he stared straight ahead across the field listening intently all around him and to the gobbler.  The sun was just beginning to make its debut as the interrupting sound of a muzzle report from a shotgun popped and echoed across the land.  The gobbler fell silent.  I suppose he met his maker that day and some lucky fool got the best of him.  I wasn’t disappointed, more perplexed.

What was that guys story like? Where was he from?  How long had he been turkey hunting? Was he a young man, maybe a high schooler?  Was he a seasoned veteran?  Was that his first bird or his thirtieth?  What did the terrain look like?  What was he thinking when the morning was coming alive around him?  How did the chase transpire?  How did he close the deal?

We as hunters are all in our own little worlds.  Everything boils down to our surroundings and the individual animals we pursue.  All depends on our choices and decisions.  We fail and we succeed.

Much like life.  Ain’t it beautiful though?

Thank You, Moon

The sun set before me behind Monte Sano, across the Trail of Tears corridor.  A southwesterly wind brushed the left side of my face every now and then.  I find myself ignoring sounds around me in those last magical ten minutes in the deer woods on colorful evenings such as that one.  I tipped my cap up and rested my head agains the back of the tree and slid forward in my ground seat.  My backside was falling asleep so I adjusted for comfort one last time before I sat up.

I’d seen three bucks move through the cedar thicket before me that morning.  I had been one bench too high, sitting in a boulder pile with a great vantage point looking down on a bench I call “the green road”.  It’s a mixed hardwood bench dividing several rocky, sloping benches above and below.  That mountain is thick with saplings, sweet cedars, chittam wood, oak, ash, hickory, and persimmon.  It had taken me four days to pinpoint their movement, and after several houdini’s, I felt like I had the perfect wind to have a good line of sight on a shooter buck.

Night fell and intermittent clouds slipped through overhead.  A moon just a couple days from bursting with it’s full potential beamed through the woods from the east.  I heard a couple down near my foot trail, so I waited as to not spook them.  I hadn’t been busted since I’d been in that spot and didn’t plan on it any time soon.  I listened to their cautious footsteps slip through the thicket.  I peered through my binoculars to no avail playing a game with myself, to see if I could pick them out in the darkness.  Footsteps faded quietly down the mountain.

It was just then that above and to my right the unmistakable traveling of animals were making their way to me.  The moonlight was bright.  Maybe it could be a buck.  I cocked the hammer on my Model 94 and rested it on my lap.  The forced breaking of sticks and crunching of leaves would pause all at once for a moment or two, then resume.  I knew it had to be deer.  A few of them for sure.

I was sitting on the breaking point from the green road above me to the cedar bench below.  Call it a stair-step from one bench to the next.  A limestone ledge made up of cracked boulders dividing the two.  My heart began to flutter a little.  I strained to my right to try to see.  The only thing seeing were my ears, telling me that these deer were within 20 yards of me, headed for me.  They cut down on my bench just before crossing my wind.  It was a magnificent sight.

As the clouds, like marching columns of infantry, moved through the sky the moonlight would fade in and out.  The woods would go from complete darkness to piercing displays of pale illumination.  Finally I could see the lead deer.  It was a big doe.  She slipped through the shadows of the trees stretching toward the west on the forest floor.  Her coat was shining, and once she even peered just right and the moonlight reflected off of here big eyes as two green dots bobbed along in front of three other deer.  It was so cool to see natural light cause that reflection.

As they moved in front of me, I became quite content with the beauty of the scene before me and eased the hammer down on my rifle.  It would have been foolish to attempt such a shot anyways.  No sooner had the does walked in front of me they stopped at 15 yards.  Another deer was slipping in on the bench above me.  It was a slightly bigger body and moved above them, but did not follow.  This is characteristic of a mountain buck, to stay one or more benches downwind of the does, shadowing them.  At the time, I didn’t know what it was.  Directly I saw the slightest flash of an antler in the light as he lifted his head from the ground.  I knew he would wind me.  He walked directly behind me at 15 yards and suddenly pounced backward.  He grew cautious immediately and turned away towards the direction he came.  He slipped, not in a panic, back down the green road.

I peered through my binoculars in the direction of the does.  They were so close I could hear their grunts, licking, and the crunching of acorns.  I figured they would pass through, but they made themselves at home in that thicket.  They milled around for thirty minutes.  The moonlight would come and go.  I could see their dark figures moving so slowly, sniffing the earth in search of food.  Not one of them strayed more than 30 yards from me.

Time began to slow.  I relished in the moment.  Here I am, a lone hunter.  I chose a spot of land on a mountain with the hopes of seeing deer.  Out of all the deer in that forest and every possible place they could travel and feed, four special does surrounded me.  They did not spook, they were not afraid, and I had no nervous energy to alert them of my presence.  I found myself in the darkness, sitting against a tree with my goal before me.

I didn’t care walking down empty handed.  Thats the story of my hunting career.  I select animals to harvest sparingly, only averaging one a year.  I can’t pinpoint why I do it.  So much time and effort, not to mention money.

No matter.  That hunt was a success in more ways than one.  To cheat wildlife at their own game.  My woodsmanship came to fruition for once.

Call it reassurance that I sort of know what I’m doing.  To get inside their circle.

I thank God for such magnificent and graceful creatures: the whitetail deer.  I profoundly thank Him for blessing me with the health to be able to wake up out of bed and climb that cold mountain.  And I thank Him for moments such as the encounter in the night.

That Norfolk Southern locomotive still bellowing in the lowlands.

On the Senses

We’ll take long, conversation rich truck rides.  Follow two yellow lines snake ahead of the high beams.  Cut off the truck to the break of silence.  Smells and the clarity  of sound come out at night like the animals.  Rustles in darkness hunt you down trampled footpaths.  Moving from tree to tree, watching you.  A mighty canopy of barren branches and trunks lifting up praise.  Backlit clouds sneak through the crystal atmosphere past a ghostly moon.

That description may only be a snapshot, but I don’t look forward to “hunting season.”  I look forward to moments in time that leave lasting impressions.  The climb up the mountain in the morning is different from the sights, sounds, and smells.  Burning legs, sweaty feet, and a racing heartbeat can’t tell you what your senses are experiencing.

I still sit with fire and try to understand it.  Pass that Tennessee whiskey around.  Wipe your lips, take a deep breath, and strum me a G chord.  Tell me how that buck busted you this morning.  Shine that field one more time.  Roll that banjo.  Throw that deer roast into the coals.  Let it simmer.  Laugh it all out.

Scuffed up boots in the firelight.  Numbing fingertips.  Blaze orange toboggans.  The smell of fuel and oil on that four wheeler.  Twinkling frost on the grass.  Frozen dirt.  A snow-covered forest.  The scent of cedar thickets.  The wooden stock of  a deer rifle in the right hand.  Watering eyes on the ride up the mountain.  A blue, Appalachian mountainside.  Weighing the worth of getting out of bed.  Frigid wind sneaking down your neck.  Six pairs of boots scattered on the front porch.  A deer hanger swaying from the shed.  Muzzle reports in the dawn.  Heaters blowing throughout the house.  The old Buck knife my uncle gave me.  Bacon on a skillet.  Bronze shell casings on the ground.  The last bit of noise you make before you watch the sunrise.  Footsteps.

Way back in a valley.  An old fiddle tune on my mind.

A spectator doesn’t sit on the outside looking in.  They look outward.  Only the athlete looks inward.

I got home late last night and sat down with my momma for some alone time.  As we usually do, we dive into the discussion of life and the words and thoughts meander down the back roads of normal conversation.  Talking about what we could have done or the way it should have been.

I couldn’t help but bring out something that has haunted me for the past six years.  It might sound silly, but to some of us it still hurts.  Baseball still pierces my emotions.  Only one game does this to me.

In 2005 I was a senior at Huntsville High School.  I was in my fourth year of baseball, second of varsity.  It was my only year to start and anchor down the first base position.  We bolstered a record of 29 wins and 5 losses, setting a wins record for the program.  Even six years later, some high school teams are playing twenty more games and have the opportunity to lose more.  That doesn’t take away from our accomplishments though.

We would be seeded against Gardendale High School in the first round of the 5A state playoffs.  We were, in a sense, a raggedy bunch.  Only one of us would go on to sign a college scholarship and continue a baseball career.  But we found ways to win and we did that against hated crosstown foes.

I remember sitting on a bench outside of the field house the day of the big game.  My stomach was turning.  Grinding my teeth.  Coach Mincher sat down beside me and asked me if I was nervous.  I  nodded my head, yes.  He replied shortly, “Just get out there and play ball.”

The other team showed for batting practice.  Cotton jerseys colored an ugly maroon and grey pants.  It is eerie seeing an unfamiliar team pile off the bus onto your home field.  The pre-game routine commenced and the park filled up with patrons.  A 7 o’clock game time came about quickly.

We put Andrew “Train” Townsley on the mound.  A guy we had put our full faith in ten times before that year and won each time.  The second batter of the game they hit a home run with a man on and went up quick.  We responded and went up 5 to 2 in the following couple of innings.  And we battled and battled.

They put in a big lefty in the second inning and he put a stop to our progress.  The game from there became a blur in my mind.  Only the lights of the scoreboard filling the 14 slots across seven innings.  And they responded again and again against Train.  We lost the one game playoff opener, and Gardendale went on to a second round two out of three match-up.

We dropped what was in our hands and slowly gathered in right field.  We held back the tears till we dropped to our knees.  It was like a knife in the gut.  Coach told us to lift our heads and gave us his thanks for working for him and for each other.  We hugged loved ones outside the field on our way to the locker room.  Cried all the way.  And shook hands in a farewell that, I for one, was not ready for.  And I distinctively remember Train sitting by the wall, rocking the back of his head on the cinder blocks, crying.

If we played that game 100 more times over, we would have put Train on the mound.  We had faith in him.  He did not let us down.  We loved each other as a team.  And the sorrow of the loss was short at the very moment, when a few of us went out on the field after the park emptied and played around with a bat and a few balls.  Under the bright lights.  Like a bunch of little kids.

Hell.  We were a bunch of kids.

2011 HHS 6A State Champions - First in school history.

You boys of 2011 deserved that trophy.  Hold on to those memories.

I wouldn’t have traded 4 championship trophies to not play with ya’ll:

Michael Dinges, Beau Brooks, Chris Sanford, Sam Trupiano, Bradley Futch, Chuck Ashcraft, Ben Graham, Trey Wolfe, and Andrew Townsley

My good friend Nick Rutland. A clever north Alabama mountain man.

It had slipped my mind that the north Alabama’s turkey season opened up two weeks later than the southern region. Yesterday morning I found myself marked as present for the second day in session. Nick and I perched ourselves on a down slope. I picked out a good oak tree, unfolded my ground seat, and settled in. Ripe with anxiety. Nick positioned himself a few yards away amongst a rocky outcrop and leaned up against an aging boulder face emerging from the earth. The valley was chill, awakening, and as hollow as the one we were sitting in. Crows scanned the tree tops with a relentless cadence of monotonous shrieks. Though you couldn’t see them, a diverse host of song birds praising in the low light. I heard some twigs crack over my left shoulder and eased my head around to the sight of a deer. A small one. It’s coarse coat already showing shades of a more reddish kind. It peered my way and lifted it’s front right leg and held it there for a stint. Looked around in indecisively and cautiously trotted down the mountain. All the while two big toms in the valley below hammering. I had waited a long time to hear that splendid sound.

Nick ripped off a sequence of yelps and short cuts. The birds in the valley answered periodically. One setting off the other. A jake across the holler wanted in on the action, playing follow the leader. A struggling noise not fit to be labeled a gobble. Another bird several hundred yards up the mountain muffled through the hardwoods. The calling continued and the gobbles rang out. I’m not sure how much time had passed when we heard two more toms to our left and around, about even in elevation. I looked at Nick and motioned my hand above the rocky ledge and he pointed me to move. I stood up and eased up to hickory flats about thirty yards up the mountain from him.

I put in my mouth call and started clucking. Nicks calls reverberated throughout the mountain as the closest gobbler checked up on us. Out of six birds he was the one to commit. I heard Nick stand up and he motioned me to move again. We met up and concurred that the bird was coming. We kept low and drifted through the woods to a ground blind Nick fashioned out of some limbs and bailing wire and shoved piles of leaves up against the walls as the rain the night before had washed them all away.

We nestled in the blind on the flats and leaned up against a big rock. The terrain elevated slightly behind us with about 35 yards visibility. A cedar thicket marked the mountain resuming into the steep benches. Nick decided to go tight-lipped. The tom sounded off around the mountain in the cedar thicket after about fifteen more minutes. Every couple of minutes it would call again, “Where are you!” He was circling us. So we turned around and got on our knees and perched our guns up on the boulder. Only our heads and hands visible.

By the character of his gobble he was a younger tom. We guessed about two years old. As he got closer the he would double-hammer. Each time raising the heartbeat. We were in an uncomfortable position. I was shaking. He was so close yet I couldn’t see him. It seemed he would take no more than five paces before gobbling. Finally I whispered to Nick, “I see him.” The unmistakable blue and red head. His feathers shining in the sun. I saw him for all of three seconds. He moved behind a tree then Nick caught a glimpse of him. Then the tom started clucking anxiously. Nick said, “He sees us, I gotta stand up and shoot him.” The bird clucked and clucked and as Nick rose to his feet. I was baffled. What was happening? By the time we stood the bird was trotting away and vanished in the cedar thicket. We stood there. And watched.

It still blows my mind that turkeys can follow the desire of your call from out of sight and afar. And no matter where you are, they have pinpointed your exact location and will show up at that exact spot. The bird was thirty yards when I first saw him. I can’t remember through the adrenaline if my bead was on his head or not. I could have shot. He could have been a dead bird. We still don’t know what he saw, but the simple fact is that it was a clean bust.

Tom 1 – Hunters 0.

See you next year.

Yours truly,

The mountain bird.

I believe I was 14 years old when my father and I first discovered it.  Caught my first trout there.  And it would be 10 years before I returned to truly fish its waters again.

The first trout I ever caught. This was ten years ago.

Matt and I turned on to the Cherohola Skyway and slowly made our way down the 18 mile stretch of ledge ridden pavement into the Cherokee National Forest.  The remnants of a heavy two day old rainstorm dying out.  Eventually the road would dead-end into the heart of the ancient woodlands that were the Cherokee.  A vast expanse of wilderness spanning across three state lines.  The whole ride, the Tellico River stair stepping from the hills.  Rolling and thundering in a torrent from the flooding rains.

About 13 miles in we passed the Green Cove camp community.  A small area of cabins, trailers, an old beat up lodge for sale, and two seasonal general stores that were shut down for the winter, due to open back up in mid-march.  We cruised through the ghost town slowly and came up on Sourwood Campground area.  I pulled off immediately onto the gravel road and spied out a flat, open campsite right next to the river.  There were no second guesses.  We would inhabit this place for the next three days.  We unloaded, set up the tents, busted out the food and marveled at the beautiful rapid before us.  Raging through a gap of boulders into a deep hole.

This is what we ate and slept next to. I bathed in it. Some would call that foolish.

We put on our waders and boots, rigged our rods and reels, and set out around the camp area to find any sign of a suitable place to cast a fly in the dangerous water.  We dared not wade into any part of the Tellico less it were a still eddy.  I walked a couple hundred yards down to a bridge where the river was forced through a narrow gap.  A big still back-eddy swirled over a sandy bottom on the downstream side.  I sat there and hooked into about 10 beautiful rainbows.  Though they were as long as my hand, Matt suspected they were wild.  Full of color and spots, and feisty contenders.  I wasn’t there long before the cold overtook me.  My feet and fingers numb.  The temperature drop was setting with the sun.  A sub-30 degree night in order.

Typical size for our particular trip. They definitely come bigger. The stock resumes in mid-March. They were fun to catch though and beautiful.

The next full day we fished hard.  I caught two.  Matt hooked into a half dozen or more.  The Tellico was bent on testing my novice skills and even Matt’s greater experience.  Fast water gushing white.  Deep, hidden holes.  Crashing against boulders, upending and folding over slabs on the bottom.  We took naps that afternoon, beaten by the flow against our legs.  We awoke with an hour or so of daylight left.  I grabbed a bar of soap, stripped down bare, and washed up in the splintering water.  It was medicine though.  A refreshing dip.  We drove about 45 minutes to Madisonville for Mexican food and a warm room.

Matt drifting on the rapid behind the camp. He caught six within 5 minutes.

The next morning we arose and immediately struck our camp.  It wasn’t long before Matt was already in the river by the campsite.  He hooked into six fish on his first dozen drifts.  We thought we were in for a glorious day of fishing.  We left Sourwood and drove down river.  We stopped at the first delayed harvest (catch and release only) hole we got to.  I hooked into two rainbows immediately, Matt hooking into several.  The ten o’clock sunlight warming our necks.  We proceeded down to several more holes over the next few hours, and like a light switch, the biting ceased.  Wading down hundred yard stretches of river through mad rapids and unforgiving rocks.  Testing every fish bearing hole.  But nothing.  At about one o’clock we decided to call it a trip.  And we loaded up and bid farewell to the Tellico and all it’s beauty.  Back to Alabama.  A much needed escape behind us.

The best fish of the trip. A rainbow on the first hole of the morning.

The fishing was only half the reason we went.  The other half was to unleash an adventurous spirit inside.  A piece of our minds that are locked up most every day.  The only two people camping in the whole Tellico River valley.  The only two men fishing the miles of running water in a veil of fog.  Rounded and smoothed stones resting beneath a family of mountainous pines.  The campfire at night like a dimly lit room.  Its flame a restless spirit dancing in our glossy eyes.  To bound up in the warmth of a sleeping bag and doze off to the noise of a Appalachian stream.

And if you strayed away from the light of the fire.  You would be held there.  As if two arms wrapped around and squeezed a little bit of breath out of you.  The hairs standing up on the back of your neck.  All in a pitch darkness…..which I cannot explain.

There is no reason a camper shouldn't have a fire. And we made ends meet in a soaked forest.


Matt and I in front of Bald River Falls.