The Outdoorsman’s Guide to Social Distancing

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The Adirondacks, in upstate New York, offer great deer hunting, as well as good-for-the-soul solitude. (Colin Kearns/)

For years I’ve been trying to figure out what I’m an expert at, or even could be an expert at, and now suddenly, due to the coronavirus, I know: It’s social distancing. I have always been a pro at that. Since as long as I can remember, people seem to naturally recoil from me, without my even trying. So, it seems, this is my moment. Here goes.

Look, you might not be naturally terrified of social interactions like me. You probably can’t radiate the kind of cheerful stay-the-hell-away-from-me vibe that I find so easy. But you do have something important going for you. You’re an outdoorsman. You’re self-reliant. Whereas solo activities like hunting and fishing make most people uncomfortable, you know how to take care of yourself. Whereas most people prefer to be part of a herd, you’re pumped to go it alone. And now, the federal government, the media, and the nation’s top health official are telling you to do what comes naturally—do stuff by yourself.

What follows is a list from other F&S experts of things to do during this unique moment in our national life. But I can’t let you go without a tip of my own. Lately, when I meet an overly friendly person who, as a prelude to a more involved conversation, asks how I’m doing, I just tell that person the truth. “I’m almost completely paralyzed by anxiety and fear for my life. I wake up during the night every two hours. And honesty, there’s no way for me to know for sure that I’m not already infected.”

I can pretty much guarantee it will end the conversation, get them to back up to a safe distance, and leave you to go do something by yourself—outdoors. — Bill Heavey

Have the Turkey Woods All to Yourself

If you really want to be alone, hunt turkeys at mid-day. Early in the morning, the woods are crowded with hunters, gobbling turkeys, and hooting owls. It’s a cacophony. Around 8 a.m., the gobbling stops. Hunters go to work. Owls go to bed. The woods turn quiet, and they’re all yours. And, it’s a well-known truth about turkeys that their social distancing skills weaken as the morning wears on. A bird that’s standoffish after fly-down may strut right in at 10 a.m.

A mid-morning hunt can take different forms. It’s a good time to spot a strutter, then stalk and call, or to reap a bird, if that’s something you do. Or you can take a walk, stopping to call every hundred yards or so. You’ll definitely feel alone listening to your cuts and yelps rattle through the same empty timber that was full of gobbling and hen talk at dawn. Every once in a while, maybe not today, or maybe the next time you call, you’ll make a tom answer. Sometimes the gobble is so faint you’re not sure you heard it. Sometimes it’s so close and loud it makes you jump, then scramble for the nearest tree.

If you’re the sitting type, find a field edge, stick out a decoy, and wait. Call every 10 minutes. Nod off if you want. Eat snacks. Look at migrating songbirds through your binocular. Be patient. If you’re tempted to leave, pull out your phone and check the news. You’ll be reminded right away that where you are now is the very best place for you to be. —Phil Bourjaily

Not sure where to go for your afternoon turkey hunt? Check out our list of the country’s best public-land spots for hunting spring gobblers.

Now Is the Time to Sharpen Your Knives

Looks like you’re going to have some time on your hands, and if you’re looking for something to do, try putting a true razor edge on a knife. Very few knives ever get this sharp because it’s not necessary, and because it takes time. The Japanese swordmakers, whose products were all razor sharp, left the edge and the polishing to specialists because it was both difficult and time consuming, and they could better use the hours to be turning out new swords.

The Japanese used successively finer water stones—literally, stones soaked in water until they were impregnated. Here, we prefer a strop, or a finishing paddle, to polish the edge. Strops are most commonly used on straight razors, and are made of heavy, flexible leather on one side and coarse canvas on the other. When I was a kid, you used to hear the slapslapslapslapslap of razors being stropped in most barber shops.

A finishing paddle looks like a fraternity paddle (“Thank you sir, may I have another?”) but with leather glued onto one side. Most people who use them like to work green polishing rouge into the leather.

In use, the two work the same. You drag the knife backward along the leather, reversing sides after each stroke, and taking care that the edge itself does not get dragged while it’s vertical to the strop as you flop it over.

As you work the blade back and forth you polish the edge, and you cause the wire edge, or false edge left by stoning, to bend back and forth and finally break. When the wire edge breaks, what you’re left with is a razor edge.

How do you know? When you can literally sweep the hair off your forearm with a single stroke. —David E. Petzal

If you need a refresher on honing a blade, here’s how to sharpen a knife to a razor edge.

Take a Solitary Shed Hunt

Lately my friends are posting photos of huge antlers all over social media, and firing direct volleys at me via text message. Gnarly rights and lefts from monster non-typs, matched sets from Booners, truck beds so littered with bones they look like the finds of an archeological dig. Implied or not, the inference I draw is: Where are yours, Bestul? I’d call it shed-shaming if I had a dog in the fight. But I don’t.

I love shed hunting, look forward to it all winter. But I kind of stink at it. Here it is nearly April and I’ve yet to find my first horn. (Yes, we know they’re actually antlers, but only a newbies insists on calling them that). I can’t seem to keep my eyes on the ground.

The shed I’m most proud of I actually stepped on. I was staring 20 feet up a two-trunk red oak, trying to determine the right spot to hang a treestand, when I felt something under my boot. The spike antler was so small it fit in the watch pocket of my jeans, but doggone it, I found it after unraveling a rub line and pegging the perfect stand tree. If I can’t spot tines poking up from the leaf litter because I’m distracted by trees shredded by the buck who dropped them, I’m OK with that.

Other stuff vies for my attention too. Turkeys are gobbling already, and with season just a few weeks off, I might wander toward a vocal tom to see if I can spot him strutting in the sun. Mushrooms will follow the first warm rains, and man have I scouted some dandy dead elms by studying their sprawling crowns now. Of course, a real shed hunter wouldn’t be staring skyward, but does he know the smell of morels swimming in butter on a pan about to fry the season’s first trout?

So yeah, I could be a better shed hunter if I could focus, and grid-pattern, and avoid distraction. But for the first time in weeks I can navigate the woods without snowshoes. I want my legs, and my eyes, to have the freedom to go wherever they want. —Scott Bestul

Before you set out on your own solo shed-hunting adventure, study up on our 18 Key Strategies for Finding More Sheds.

Paddle a Canoe to Nowhere

It’s a small creek jungled with doghair saplings and briars and kinked up with more twists and turns than a muscadine vine. There are blowdowns blocking the creek every 40 yards. Or 30. Or 10. At each one, I climb out of the canoe, haul it over the trunk, re-board, pick up the paddle. Face full of spiderwebs. Sweat in my eyes. Muddy to the waist. And with each paddle stroke I find myself deeper in a place that offers little but sweat bees and solitude, and my harvest of peace and enchantment deepens. There are times in life when I simply need my own company, and this little creek is where I go.

Here there are giant trees that have weathered storms, but there are downed trees that succumbed to some past tempest, some rage of wind long gone but nonetheless still eerily present.

Yet there are turtles in the sun. Resurrection fern in the overhead canopy. Fish that flee ahead of the canoe. A kingfisher rattling in the next creek channel over.

The next creek channel over. Not sure I’ve noticed that one before.

I step out of the boat and haul the canoe 30 yards through the woods. A wink of water beckons. I slide the canoe in and settle on my knees. The boat lurches for a moment, uneasy with the sudden shift. Then, as I settle into a pattern of paddling, the canoe finds its center under me, and everything around seems to sigh with a bit of harmony.

I plant the paddle and pull through new water. I’m not here to catch anything, to shoot anything, to pre-scout for deer or turkeys. I just need to feel this boat, feel this water, feel sweat and labor. I need to feel the rhythm of a wilder world in order to calibrate my own inner spirit. I’m not sure where this piece of new water will lead. All I know is that I need to be here, alone. There are times when I need to move under my own power. —T. Edward Nickens

If you’re new to canoeing, here are the essential pieces of canoe gear you need to get started.

Tie Some Flies

If you’re a person who owns plastic bins full of rooster feathers and rabbit pelts and fish hooks of every imaginable size, being told to stay indoors for a few weeks in March isn’t exactly a burden. No one welcomes a global health crisis, but with trout season just weeks away, I’d be lying if I told you I wasn’t looking forward to some serious vise time.

Even after many years of tying, I still get a kick from how a feather wound onto a hook becomes a hundred wiggly legs, or how deer hair, packed tight and shaved with a razor, becomes a popper head, solid as cork. I think of the flies that caught fish last year and tie accordingly: a little sparser hackle, or a buggier body, or a different shade of yellow. Fly-tying demands enough of your attention that your problems recede for a while, but leaves enough of your mind free to listen to music or an audio book or chat with someone you care about.

It doesn’t matter that I already have more than enough flies. Tying isn’t just about refilling boxes. It’s an art, because even the simplest fly is beautiful, and it’s a craft, because the flies you make have a purpose. Each one you tie is a fishing experience that hasn’t happened yet.

That promise is reason enough to do it. But if you’re like me, you don’t even need that. You just need a little time. —Morgan Lyle

Need some fly-tying inspiration? Here are seven great fly patterns you can tie with fur and feathers from game animals.

Practice Your Turkey Calling

If the government is serious about social distancing, they should give every American a turkey call and encourage them to practice. People will run away from one another.

This already happens on a small scale in my house every spring. Around the beginning of March, the gobbler that lives in the back of my mind struts up near the front, and I feel an urgent need to put a call in my mouth and start yapping. Then my wife and kids feel an urgent need to get away from me.

There’s no practical reason for me to improve my turkey calling at this point. I’m not saying I’m any great shakes, but I’m good enough for hunting. The thing is, I tend to get a little obsessed now. Just lately I started thinking about the fact that some expert mouth-callers can make a cluck that sounds round—yup, round—like a droplet of water dripping from a faucet, or like a bubble popping. Now I’m pretty sure I need to make clucks that sound like bubbles too.

I don’t, really. Most birds seem to come to my shapeless clucks fine. On the other hand, opening morning is coming soon, and I’m going to slip under a roost in the dark, and the woods are going to wake up. A gobbler is going to rattle the branches, and the hens, right above me, will start in with their soft waking-up talk. Pips and whistles, and the first whispery yelps—and there will be some bubbly clucks too. At some point, I’m going to chime in, and the sounds I make will either alter the natural chorus or seem a part of it. I doubt if the birds will notice the difference. But I will.

In any case, now is a good time for an obsession, and if perfecting your cluck or yelp drives people away in the bargain, well, you’ve done your duty. —Dave Hurteau

If you need help with your turkey calling, here are our 10 best turkey calling tips for the spring.

Tie Some Knots, Feel Better

Everybody’s got a little bit of OCD. Some of us have more than others. Me, I like to learn and tie knots. Fishing knots, camping knots, decorative knots, knots that I’m unlikely to need, such as the Highwayman’s hitch, a quick release knot for tying up your horse.

I even have an app, Animated Knots by Grog, on my phone. It’s very satisfying to take a few feet of paracord out of your pocket and tie a neat-looking Turk’s head around your offhand wrist. If you’re on an airplane (which you probably shouldn’t be) you can almost see the thought bubble arising over the person next to you: “Why can’t he just play Sudoku?” Because I suck at Sudoku. I have more fun with knots.

There is the pleasure of tying a new knot the few hundred or so times it takes until your hands can tie it by themselves. I also enjoy the timelessness of knots. Every few years, I’ll tie a diamond knot and think, Look at that. Still works, after all this time. Knotting is also a great way to entertain yourself while sitting in the emergency room with a persistent cough and high fever. Also, it might make the nurses think that along with your other symptoms you’re losing it, and so you might get to see someone quicker. —Bill Heavey

Here are 10 simple knots and hitches that every sportsman should know how to tie.

Take a Turkey Hike

I have no problem avoiding people, but I’m not going to spend the apocalypse indoors. The timing of all this isn’t terrible, though, because this time of year, I start stockpiling new turkey hunting spots like some people hoard toilet paper. I have plenty of places to hunt already, including some good private ground. But I still love to pull up maps of public places, look at landscapes and topo lines, and think to myself, There ought to be a turkey living right there.

If the hunch is strong enough, I pull on my boots and go looking. It’s a process that’s part scouting, part hiking—not that I’d ever admit to hiking—and it’s a fine excuse to get into the woods and remain as socially distant as possible. Last Saturday’s walk was like most of them. I covered around 4 miles worth of ridges I’d never seen at Land Between the Lakes, and didn’t find a single track or turkey turd. But now, at least I’ve seen those ridges.

Sunday’s effort was better. I paddled a canoe up a creek as far as I could, and then pulled it up the bank and around a log jam, across two sandbars, and finally clawed my way up an undercut shoreline to check out the bottoms that I’ve threatened to check out for years. Amid the sweetgum and poplar was a tiny rise—it showed up as a single topo line on the map—and that rise was lined with ancient, sprawling oak trees, the kind that river-bottom turkeys like to roost in. As I walked toward them, I heard a single, harsh note—the alarm putt of a gobbler. I watched him scurry away through the woods and thought to myself, It’s just you and me out here. —Will Brantley

Spring turkey seasons are just around the corner. Here some expert scouting tips to help you get your gobbler on opening day.



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