Outdoor / Fishing

Thursday, Jan 17 2013 08:56 PM

Steve Merlo: Proper gear for cold weather makes all the difference

By The Bakersfield Californian

The long bout of freezing weather over the last few weeks got me to thinking about hunting in icy conditions without the benefit of proper clothing. Growing up in Buttonwillow meant at least a week of sub-arctic fronts during duck season, causing me to cope with frigid temperatures without decent outdoor wear. Plain socks, a regular coat, a sock hat and some thin mittens did the trick until the sun warmed things sufficiently to lose the pain in my extremities.

In my teens, without decent gear, I discovered the sport of deer hunting, which I fell in love with. Back then, the season ran until the middle of November, and like the fool I was, set out to conquer a big buck without thinking about 7,500-foot temperatures.

Near Dome Rock on the last weekend of the season, a sudden storm dropped six inches of powder overnight, a good hunting sign. Still-hunting up a mountain, I came across a set of tracks and followed them religiously, not really paying attention to the numbness in my feet, I finally got close enough to bag a nice three-point buck, and after field dressing him, I pulled him down the mountain and back to camp. By the time I made it there, my toes were nearly frostbitten and the pain when the circulation returned was nearly unbearable. I almost lost a toe or two over that idiotic adventure.

My brother, a good friend and I once ventured into a forest canyon below Camp Condor seeking wild pigeons. We had seen plenty of birds drop into the secluded area, and without fanfare, food, coats or water descended into the black woods.

The shooting was spectacular and we took our eight-bird limits in no time, but then we had to return to the truck.

Somehow, we had lost our general bearings and meandered into deep drifts of snow while ascending a new trail. My brother and I were shod in fairly decent hunting boots, but our friend had worn nothing but his pointed cowboy boots. Before long, he lost feelings in his feet, and without realizing his predicament, walked out of both boots continuing up the mountain, leaving them stuck behind him in the 2-foot deep snow.

Luckily we discovered his error in time, started a fire and thawed out his frozen appendages before any serious damage set in.

Our old Buttonwillow duck pond sat approximately ¼-mile northeast of the junction of I-5 and what is now Highway 58 and while my gloved hands and fingers felt ready to fall off, the Ice Capades show put on by the ducks made the miserable 12 degrees almost bearable.

As we broke a hole in the half-inch plate ice for each decoy to float, flocks of green wing teal swished overhead in the predawn light, peeping loudly and looking for a liquid place to land. By the time we got into our blinds, Meadowbrook and Cloverleaf gun clubs a mile to the north had already started shooting, and within minutes we were covered up with birds.

All of us wanted to shoot the graceful pintails the pond was noted for producing, so when the groups of teal returned, we let them be. Seeing their fake buddies in the "water" served to have them alight en masse on the ice, and I can still remember the small ducks spinning and wobbling uncontrollably across the rink like tiny ballerinas. That day was memorable, yes, but I have never forgotten how cold I was on that day and swore to do something about it as soon as I was able to afford it.

I eventually kept my promise. On a visit to Saskatchewan, an unexpected blizzard marooned four of us in our snowbound goose blind. A complete white-out, the snow quickly covered our decoys and then us while we waited for the guide to come find us. Funny thing, the snow wasn't all that cold--we were dressed appropriately and the drifts only served to further insulate us. Warm and toasty, believe it or not, we waited for several hours before the man in charge finally "rescued" us.

Before he got there, the skies cleared enough for us to call in a flock of nine honkers.

With three of us shooting guns and the other a video camera, we took all nine birds with nine shots and have it on film for posterity. We all agree that had we not been comfortable, no one would have even fired off a shot.

Because of these numbing exposures and now realizing the value of comfortable outdoor gear, I only buy the best rated stuff for both hunting and fishing.

I suggest everyone do the same before venturing out to do battle with Mother Nature.

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