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2015 : The Season That Wasn’t….Or Was It?

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Exploring the Mountains of West Texas

2015 will go down in memory as the hunting season that wasn’t for me. Meaning it wasn’t full of the endings I’d hoped. There were a lot of disappointments. As I reflect back on the year however, I have to ask myself if that was really true. 2015 was a crazy year, from work to weather, and I’ll try recap it the best I can with pictures from the year, thoughts, and hopes for 2016.

Orion Coolers launched in January 2015 for all practical purposes. Molds were arriving earlier than that, and what was an idea was becoming a reality. Our first hunting industry trade show was the ATA archery show in Indianapolis. We only had one cooler in production, the Orion 65. The rest were wooden mock-ups and promises. We were the new kids on the block, but folks who knew us personally and Jackson Kayak welcomed us and gave us credit. Thanks for that.

A few more weeks of trade shows and brutal TN ice storms ensued, and by March, I was ready for some off-season javelina hunting and product testing near Big Bend, TX. It’s one of my favorite places, and I quite enjoy getting lost in the mountains of West Texas. The weather wouldn’t leave me alone though, and even there in the desert we were greeted by snow and ice. Now I see it was the omen of the wicked, ill-timed hunting weather for the year to come. Javelina weren’t agreeable, surely huddling comfortably out of the cold. I was however able to make new friends at Cow Creek Ranch on our way home, and stalk a ram on their property.

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Mouflon Ram at Cow Creek Ranch

By the end of the March, travels placed us back in familiar surroundings in Vermont. Knowing I was in town, friends were eager to get me in the field — or at least laying in a frozen one, watching sleet and snow fall on our sea of mud and decoys, waiting for any sign of snow geese overhead on their migration back to the North. Eventually skies parted and a few flocks trickled in, and some birds went into the Orion for the drive back to TN. A few days later, everybody was limiting out daily and sending me photos of happy dogs and hunters with their birds. Timing is everything.

 

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Cleaning Geese On a Pre-Production Orion 45

April placed me in Montana, home of the annual Orvis Guide Rendezvous, a fun gathering of guides, lodges and outfitters in Missoula. Dad came out as free labor for me to help at the event, and with one of the weakest snowpacks in years, afterwards seemed like a great time to spend a few days in mountains looking for early black bears leaving their dens on the hunt for fresh grass. It was Merriam turkey season, but not expecting to see any, we didn’t bother. At least I had a camera to take their photo as I gobbled to the three amigos by mouth.

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Merriam Turkeys Strutting in Montana

With the help of Sean and Tim from Linehan’s Outfitting, we looked, and looked, and hiked our boot leather off, putting in up to sixteen mountain mile days. We saw seven grizzly bears – an endangered species in the Lower 48 – but not a single black bear. That is of course until we drove to the airport and almost hit one leaving Yaak. Mother Nature’s irony knows no bounds.

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Grizzly Bear Tracks

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16 Mountain Mile Days Makes Your Feet Hurt

Mid-summer was consumed by typical new brand and production growing pains as the Orion fire continued to build. New dealers were coming on board, production and marketing were ramping, everyone was recovering from stumbles, and everybody in every department was going flat out. I started working with some great folks at Winnebago, and before long my office was on wheels, with Ashley and Tripper coming along for the ride. It was a great way to travel for the season, allowing us to spend more time together, stop at a river bank if we wanted to, and see some friends along the way.

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Morning Departure To Outdoor Retailer

 

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The Bungard Family Mobile Office

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Ash Making Dinner

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Visiting Friends Along The Road

Despite my hunting woes, the whole kayak and fly fishing season went largely to plan. Barracuda and bonefish on the fly from a Kilroy. Check. New native species of a Finespotted Snake River Cutthroat. Check. Trophy brown trout from a Kilroy. Check. Hooking and fighting two of biggest bass I could imagine in my home lakes only to have them destroy my rods. Check. Mother Nature had to remind me she likes to fish too.

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Barracuda from a Jackson Kayak Kilroy

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Kayak Fly Fishing for Bonefish

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Finespotted Snake River Cutthroat, Flat Creek, WY

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Brown Trout from a Kilroy, White River, AR

August was the start of Fall, kicked off by the Outdoor Retailer Show in Salt Lake. New kayaks were debuted along with new Orion colors, and what’s always a stressful milestone came and went in a blur, with plenty of work left to be done. Anticipation for the Fall hunting season was high. I was eager to rest and calibrate my work mind a bit and apply some of what I’d learned the year before on local whitetails. I invested in some new stands, and invested time and sweat (lots of it in the unseasonal heat) into cutting out new stands and hanging them in the backcountry. My reward was 6-weeks of the worse case of poison ivy I’ve ever had, sending me to the doc for a shot and keeping me up at night right through the heart of prime bow hunting season. I think I already mentioned how Mother Nature loves irony.

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Driving Home from Outdoor Retailer

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Packing In Stands in Tennessee

September placed me in Washington, hiking up the Cascades with backpack and bow in hand. Hot weather was perfect for waiting out bull elk at dense forest wallows when I arrived and packed in. This was the ‘Weather of 2015’ though, and by nightfall on the first day temperatures plummeted and snow and rain replaced hot sunny skies. Timing wasn’t right for bulls to be bugling, woods too dense for glassing, and wallows now too cold for wallowing. It was a long, cold, wet hunt, but bulls were there, leaving new rubs for me daily. I still saw a few bulls, one incredible Roosevelt with long, ivory tips that I’ll never forget. I also saw multiple mountain lion kills. They were leaving elk carcasses for me to find and I even scared one cat off a kill. Mother Nature likes to remind you who the better hunters are too.

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 GPS Log Break in Washington

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First Snow of the Year, September in Washington

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Elk Rub In The Dense Cascade Woods

October found me sweating and scratching the poison ivy in the Tennessee woods, passing a bunch of deer to save open freezer space, and waiting for the right one. A brief trip to Colorado to work on a new kayak design was hopefully going to be concluded with a pronghorn antelope hunt, but despite eventually finding a rancher that had somewhere I could hunt, tags sold out the night before. Even though I could not get a tag, I enjoyed taking some photos of nice antelope bucks. Particularly the one I could have shot with a bow from a kayak when he came to the river to drink — as if somehow he knew I didn’t have a tag. Pretty sure Mother Nature told him.

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Buck Pronghorn Rounding Up Does

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Pronghorn Drinking While Kayak Fishing

November placed me and Dad back in Montana with our friends at Linehan’s. It was time for redemption in ‘the Yaak’. It was prime time wild mountain whitetail rut, and weather forecasts were promising for enough snow to hunt by tracking them. Weather forecasts change however, and snow for most of the week changed to snow for one morning, then rain. Once again we hiked and covered ground, working hard all over the mountains. Amazing ground. Rattling, aggressive hunting. We saw some awesome bucks, just couldn’t close the deal. Wind was wrong. Trees were in the wrong place for a clear shot. I had an encounter with the bull elk of my life. He’s still walking around the Yaak. The day we danced with him was one I’ll never forget. I saw a once-in-lifetime freak buck, twice, but no shot. Dad had the same experience, either passing bucks or not getting the shot he wanted. On the last night, I let the hammer down slowly on a nice young buck staring me straight in face from thirty yards, hoping to find him next year. We did find a great early moose shed. I received a photo of the freak buck a week later, killed by a road hunter down near town. Eventually the lure of ‘towny does’ was too much for the mountain monster. Sometimes timing is everything.

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 Earning A View in Yaak, MT

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Sean With The First Moose Shed Of The Year

The rest of November hunting was at home. A local bow-only zone hunt I usually enjoy was cut short by hot weather, and a particularly memorable inconsiderate hunter literally climbing a tree twenty yards from me. Sometimes I don’t understand people. I know how to hike and find solitude though, so that’s what I did. I knew bucks were there. I even got some game camera photos of them, making scrapes, racking and licking branches, at midnight. It was incredibly hot every single chance I had to hunt near home, and if I could smell me once I hiked in, I knew deer could. They let me know when they snorted from out of sight, despite every wind-playing game I tried to play. Yes, some deer are smarter than I am.

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Home Woods

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 Buck Making A Hot Midnight Rut Scrape

By early December, empty freezer space was getting noticeable. The strategy of passing game and saving freezer space so I’d have room for an elk in it had backfired. Lesson learned. Won’t happen again. There are always people gladly willing to take meat. I’ll deal with the problem of having to give meat away because I have too much versus saving space next time. Luckily I join Dad and other friends annually for a long weekend at a plantation in South Carolina. That means wild hogs in the old swamps, and they’re tasty. I was able to stalk a group, find them bedded, and eventually take a large sow hog after an extended tracking job through flooded swamp. A tracking job complete with a return to the lodge, gathering of first time young hunters, including my nephew, brother, fathers, grandfathers, and friends for their first swamp hog tracking adventure. It was a pleasure to be a part of, and it meant I could fill the Orion and our freezer back in TN with tasty wild pork.

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SC Swamp Hog For The Freezer

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Wild Hog Recovery Crew

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Orion Tray Ice Scoop

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Pre-Chilling the Orion 65 In A Walk-In Game Freezer

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Backstraps From Butcher Block To Orion

This was also the season where I rediscovered the recurve, hunting with it regularly throughout the year. One might ask why I spent so much time recurve hunting, with much harder odds of success, when I wanted more meat. I don’t have any great single answer to that. I suppose it’s for a few reasons. One, I appreciate challenge. The harder the challenge, the greater the reward. Two, I appreciate the simplicity, tranquility, clarity and tradition of it. When you live and work in the hunting industry, and modern hunting TV and social media, you can’t escape the portfolios of hunting successes everywhere, from backyard bucks to remote mountain top rams. Sense of accomplishment can become skewed. There are countless successful hunters. Some are successful because of skill. Some are successful because of location. Some are successful because of time and money. Some are just lucky. Nothing is wrong with any of that, but self-imposed hunting pressure to ‘succeed’ can become unhealthy. Tainting what should be an enjoyable experience in the woods by focusing more on the result than the process because of some twisted sense of worth. Something about traditional bowhunting helps change that for me and provide clarity. It’s simply a pleasure to carry in your hand for a walk in the woods. Much like casting a fly, it provides it’s own sense of pleasure beyond catching a fish. It reminds me of my grandfather and my childhood. Something about it makes you want to slow down, take that nap in the sun under the tree. Not worrying about filling a tag. Enjoying the hunt, whatever it may yield.

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 Recurve Ridge, Texas

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Recurve Hunting Canyon Country, Texas

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Glassing Near Big Bend, Texas

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Resting The Recurve In Sitka’s Tip Pocket, Tennessee

So after all of that, was the season really all that bad? It’s easy to feel so, knowing what so easily could have been. But that’s not why I hunt. I treasure memories more than trophies. I still have caribou in the freezer from last year and a variety of other wild game and fish, so nobody sitting for dinner in our home is going to lack protein in their diet. I don’t have mounts on my wall to brag or display ‘trophies’, I have them on my wall out of respect and appreciation for the animal, and because when I look at one before I go to bed, it evokes good memories. Hopefully ones I’ll never lose.

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 Waterfall Break

In the end, my season will be remembered by game seen but not taken. But, also by waterfalls. By nights in a tent under a full moon. By solitude in the woods. But also by adventures with friends and family in the woods. By showing young men how to follow a blood trail. By extreme weather. By competing with mountain lions. By almost getting stepped on by a bobcat while I laid under a tree. By finding a confused box turtle still walking around in December and not hibernating. By helping a friend pack meat off of a mountain.

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Whitetail Backpack Hunt, Tennessee

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Enjoying A Natural Bridge

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Meat Load

The irony of my entire season was summarized nicely on the closing week of Tennessee’s deer season, while hunting with a friend. I knew where a buck I was after was bedding, so I put him in a spot where if the buck was there and I jumped him, he may get a shot. As I creeped around and up the knoll, I could see antler tines pointing over the horizon where I knew there were deer beds in the past. I was excited. There was still a smile on my face when I crested the knoll only to see those tines laying freely on the leaves, not on his head. That buck’s season for this year was over. Hopefully he’s back next year, leaving clues for me to find.

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Season’s Last Souvenir

I’d like to think there was a reason he left his shed there for me to find. Perhaps it was his way of thanking me for the fun chess match we played all season, and he dropped it with a wink my direction. Or perhaps it’s his way of giving me the deer’s middle finger. After all it’s hard to flick the bird with hooves. Either way, I told you Mother Nature has a sense of humor.

Having just left another ATA show and seeing how far Orion has come in one year is refreshing. The brand is growing, standing on its own, and customers are happy. It’s taken a lot of hard work by many people. I’ve been advised to enjoy the brand building process, and not to focus too much on the result. I can relate to that. Cheers to the journey of 2016. I have a hunch things are going to work out OK.

 

 

 

 

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