Category Archives: The Sportsman’s World

Leon Archer, Outdoors Columnist - Leon has been writing “The Sportsman’s World” column since 1985. He is a five-time first place winner of the New York State Outdoor Writers Association’s Excellence In Craft Award in addition to numerous other writing awards. He is currently an active member and vice president of the New York State Writers Association. His column covers a wide range of outdoor topics far beyond just hunting and fishing.

The Sportsman’s World: Back to Fulton

By Leon Archer

We packed up and headed back to Fulton on May 7, leaving behind our grandson Beckett and Washington State, which is in full bloom right now.  

Rhododendrons in white, pink, lavender and reds are everywhere, with clouds of brilliant azaleas interspersed. Pink and white dogwood, lilacs, and bushes and trees I can’t identify are all in bright array. 

Wildflowers and cultivated varieties are everywhere. It makes driving an absolute visual joy.  Continue reading

The Sportsman’s World: America’s Bird

By Leon Archer

When I was 16, no one in New York state that I knew talked about hunting wild turkeys unless they were referring to the Pilgrims and Indians.

Wild turkeys no longer gobbled in the forests of our state, and had not done so for a long time before I was born. Early New Yorkers had killed them all off by the mid-1800s.

If anyone had told me when I was in high school that we would be hunting wild turkeys in Oswego County in my lifetime, I would have thought they were more than a bit daft.

It hadn’t always been that way. When the early colonists came to the New World, turkeys were abundant. Those early immigrants called the big birds turkeys, probably because they resembled another bird they were familiar with back in the Old Country, the turkey fowl.

The turkey fowl was a bird that had been imported from Turkey, thus the name. Colonists quickly dropped the fowl part of the name and they became simply turkeys.

There were no seasons, and turkeys were hunted and eaten year round. Eventually this practice reduced the substantial turkey population to a small remnant all across the Eastern United States.

It was fortunate that in states to our south a few scattered flocks had managed to hold out in inaccessible areas. States like Pennsylvania, Kentucky, and others, protected the remnant flocks and in the early 1950s, they hit upon the idea of trapping and transferring birds to areas in their state where they had historically existed.

It worked even better than the biologists and wildlife managers had dared to hope. The transferred birds thrived and quickly expanded their range on their own once they were given the opportunity.

Turkeys began to wander across the Pennsylvania border into the Alleghany and Catskill areas of New York state in the mid 1950s, and from the flocks established by those feathered colonizers, our present day flocks were also established through an ambitious program of trap and transfer.

It has been an astonishing transformation, and a welcome one to sportsmen and New Yorkers in general. Who doesn’t enjoy seeing our magnificent wild turkeys?

I suppose most people are familiar with the story that Benjamin Franklin wanted our national bird to be the Wild Turkey instead of the bald headed eagle. It’s not just a story, it’s actually true.

He wrote about it, and the written record of his suggestion remains. He felt while the turkey was colorful, wild, useful, wary, and industrious, and in many ways reflected the American people and spirit, the eagle was, after all, a scavenger, and therefor hardly worthy to represent us as a nation. Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on one’s view, the eagle won out.

Turkey hunting has become a very popular sport in New York state, as it has in almost every state in our nation today. Whether one gets a turkey or not, being out in the fields and woods this time of year is rewarding in itself – at least it is to me.

Everything is so fresh and alive. Wildlife abounds and there is a multitude of songbirds preparing to nest and raise their young. I hate getting up early in the morning, but a morning afield in search of a big tom makes getting out of that warm bed while others are still asleep all worthwhile.

I hope all you turkey hunters appreciate what you have today. Enjoy the world around you and the chance to harvest a wonderful bird.

Some of you have no doubt already taken a bird, or perhaps you have taken two and ended your spring season, but successful or not, it’s a great time to be alive and afield.

Remember to give thanks.

The Sportsman’s World — Adventures in the Marsh

By Leon Archer

Sweet thing and I have started packing for our long drive back home, but we won’t be leaving for a few more days.

It will seem strange when we leave and don’t have our grandson, Beckett, keeping us busy anymore. He just had his first birthday, but boy can he give his grampa a run for the money.

Yesterday I had him out in the back yard. It was about 70 degrees and the sun was shining, and it was way too nice to stay inside. Beckett hasn’t quite gotten used to grass, but he still likes being outside, mostly on the patio.

I had been doing some work in the flower garden and had laid my little hand spade down before Beckett joined me. He is very inquisitive, so he was investigating all the nooks and crannies around the patio while I lounged for a few minutes on the big swing.

I figured he couldn’t get into too much trouble on the patio, but the next thing I knew he had the spade in his mouth. By the time I caught up with him, he was spitting and gagging a little, but the spade seemed to be OK.

Apparently good black dirt isn’t immediately fatal as Beckett seems pretty lively today. My mother always used to say, “You have to eat a peck of dirt before you die.” Beckett’s off to a good start.

I’ve been keeping track of what the fishing has been like back in New York state, and I am ready to be back there.

The bullheads are biting and perch have been showing up. The smelt haven’t started running in the Niagara River yet, probably because the water is still too cold.

It shouldn’t be long though, because the guys fishing on the lake where the river empties out onto the Niagara Bar have noticed smelt in the trout stomachs.

This is the time of year when my father would announce that he was going to pick a bunch of cowslips for dinner. I couldn’t stand cowslips (more properly known as marsh marigolds) but my father actually looked forward to them.

If you read about them, you will find out they are poisonous, but when prepared properly, they are edible. I use the word “edible” advisably and in its broadest sense. Anyone who watches the TV show Bizarre Foods will understand.

The thing I liked about cowslips wasn’t eating them, it was going after them. They grew in the marsh, and the only time to pick them, according to my father, was in the early spring when the new leaves were about the size of a half dollar and they hadn’t blossomed out with their bright yellow flowers.

Dad would say to me, “Get your hip boots, we are going after cowslips.” I didn’t complain; I hopped to it, and was ready to head out before he was.

We would walk up East Main Street, past Charlie Beldock’s barn, and in no time we were in the marsh that bordered his farm.

Once we were in the marsh, I was in a wonderland and I had precious little time for actually picking cowslips. We both carried a large paper grocery bag to put the round leaves in; dad’s was always full when we left the marsh, and mine was, shall we say, easy to carry.

It was an adventure to walk in the marsh, and there was so much to see, so picking marsh marigolds was not my top priority.

This particular marsh was home to many muskrats and their houses were sources of great interest to me. Sometimes I would catch site of a muskrat sitting on a feeding mound, munching away on a cat tail root or see one swimming along the surface before plunging into an underwater run.

There were areas of water – of course – and I watched for the big, dark purplish, yellow spotted spring salamanders that gathered to breed in them. They were easy to catch, but I just looked them over and put them back.

Overhead the male snipe and woodcock were swooping down towards the marsh and then climbing back up almost out of sight before diving again over and over, and over again.

The quavering sound of the wind on their wings and the diving display was all for the attention of demure females watching from the ground. The woodcock also vocalized as they dove.

I once had a woodcock that had been displaying high above me, come plunging down to land on a small hummock about 10 feet away from me. I can still see his huge brown eyes inspecting me, before he decided I wasn’t a threat.

Then I caught a slight movement about three feet from where he had come to rest. The first thing I saw was another set of huge brown eyes, and then the brown body of the hen took shape. She had been perfectly camouflaged against the brown background of the hummock.

We had silently watched the show together, and I’m pretty sure she was just as appreciative as I had been.

I usually picked a bouquet of pussy willows for my mother before we left the marsh. They would grace the table in our home for a few days.

Several kinds of frogs abounded in the marsh. Most of them I could find if they were singing, but I never could locate peepers that I heard – very frustrating.

I’ve never lost my appreciation for the marsh. The sights and sounds enthrall me as much today as they did when I picked cowslips with my father.

Oh, by the way. Marsh Marigolds are edible when prepared properly. They must be boiled at least twice, three times is better, emptying out the water each time and putting them into fresh to boil.

This apparently leaches out whatever the toxin is and makes them less acrid and bitter.

My mother always sautéed the greens with some bacon or salt pork after their last boiling. Over the years, I got so I could eat them, but now I only think about it.

On the other hand, I bet they would make great beans and greens. I might have to hit the marsh again to find out – maybe.

The Sportsman’s World — A Sign of the Times

By Leon Archer

My father always seemed to know when it was time to do certain outdoor things.

I’m sure he checked the calendar, but more often, he would look for signs that it was time for a certain activity.

For just about every year while I was growing up, my father would gather all the gear and we would go to Black Lake to put out a nightline for catfish. We always got catfish, which my father would clean and bring home to smoke.

Perhaps my very favorite food as a child was smoked catfish.

Black Lake catfish that we caught on the nightline averaged about 6 pounds, but we caught them as large as 26 pounds.

The small ones of a pound or two we would roll in cornmeal and fry up in a big cast iron frying pan on the shore of the lake the day after we ran the line. They tasted pretty much like bullheads, but they had a greater oil content.

That was why they smoked so well. We only set the line two nights before we headed back home, but we still took a cooler full of fillets with us.

A number of years after I graduated Albany State, I decided to put a nightline out on Black Lake. I had everything I needed and I put it out in the same spot off Manley Rocks where we had always taken fish.

The next morning when I checked the line, I had one eel, one small catfish, two bullheads and several large bluegills and perch. My father and I had never done so poorly.

When I got back from my less than stellar attempt at catching catfish on a nightline, my father told me, “I knew you wouldn’t do much. You went too late. If you want to catch catfish, you need to go when the shad berries are in blossom. They’ve been done for about three weeks.”

Shad berries or service berries grow on a small tree and the whole tree looks white when it is in blossom, so it’s hard to miss, and that was the sign dad always watched for before heading north to fish.

I’ve cataloged a few of nature’s signs over my 70-plus years, but that is the one I remember best. My father also always said, “Ice out for perch and trout.” That is right on for both of them.

The trout in ponds and lakes were right up near shore and hungry, and the perch were in shallow water ready to spawn. They bit like crazy.

Dad didn’t tell me, but I learned the very best stream trout fishing (at least on Little Sandy Creek) was when the willow trees were “eared out.” The new leaves on the willows looked like little squirrel ears.

Of course, I could have been scientific and kept track of air temperatures and water temperatures, but watching willow leaves come out was easier. In addition, right after the trout were in high gear, the sucker run would be starting.

Yogi Berra, who I got to watch play one time at Yankee Stadium, was noted for his quips that have become quotes. The one I like best is, “You can see a lot by looking.”

Dad would have agreed with that. You see, there is book learning, and then there is real learning; honest to God, hands on, eyes and ears open learning.

Nature is full of signs that animals are attuned to, but men are slower to see what is right in front of them. All too many of us have forgotten how to look.

The Sportsman’s World: Time for Turkeys Near

By Leon Archer

We are only 18 days away from the opening of turkey season, and for many hunters, this is the most popular hunting season of the year.

About 100,000 hunters take to the woods in search of the big toms during the month of May, and I’m one of them.

Next spring, my grandson, Nathaniel, will be 12 and a legal hunter; I’m going to try to infect him with the bug as well.

Now that the weather has warmed up, I’m sure hunters are starting to check the fields and woods to see where they may want to be when the sun comes up May 1.

Last year, hunters in Oswego County harvested 532 turkeys during the spring season, but the harvest was greater in a number of other counties.

The largest recorded number of turkeys taken in Oswego County came in 2008. Hunters bagged 995 of the big gobblers that spring. That may sound like a lot, but hunters in Steuben County took home 1,543 birds in the 2008 season while Chautauqua County took the crown with a total of 2,016 bearded turkeys.

The year 2008 was also a big year for total spring harvest statewide. A total of 32,936 turkeys were taken in the spring of that year, compared with 21,515 taken in 2013.

While recent numbers have been lower than in the peak years, they appear to be edging back up from the low of 18,738 in 2011.

It remains to be seen what this spring will bring after our snowy winter and bitter cold. Turkeys fare pretty well during the winters as long as they can locate food enough to sustain them.

I would be very interested in hearing from turkey hunters on their observations and the results of their time in the field. I would especially like to know the relative number of turkeys you heard and saw as compared to other years.

If you have a good story, share it with me. My email address is lfarcher@yahoo.com and I really like to hear from readers. I got several responses to my request for information from trappers. They have been cruising the last two years. I envy them.

If you have a youngster who wants to hunt, I can’t think of a better way to start them out than on a spring turkey hunt; although a fall squirrel hunt after the leaves have fallen is pretty high on my list of beginning hunter activities.

Take a youngster with you, even if they aren’t old enough to actually hunt yet. As Yogi Berra once said, “you can learn a lot by watching.”

Keep me posted, and if you have a picture you would like me to use, send it with your email.

I heard from a fishing buddy a few days ago. He said the small streams in Oswego County were pretty much unfishable on the opener, but that the streams in Onondaga were reachable and water levels were fishable, but cold.

The trout weren’t biting all that well, but if one kept at it long enough it was possible to catch a fish or two. I guess it would probably have been better to just fish Salmon River for the steelhead.

I like catching fish, but I am exhilarated by just being out on the stream. It may be cold and the fish may be reluctant, but what a beautiful, vibrant scene greets one’s eyes.

Anyone who comes home disappointed by their day if they caught no fish, doesn’t understand fishing. Have a great spring, and think turkeys.

The Sportsman’s World — Crossbow Hunting

By Leon Archer

It seemed like the crossbow bill was going to die in the Assembly again this year.

It had been heavily resisted by a small faction of bow hunters and various anti-hunting groups, but large numbers of sportsmen deluged the Senate and Assembly members with calls, emails and letters.

In the end, the law was passed.

As I wrote a few weeks ago, the time for this change in New York’s conservation law was long overdue. We now become one of 28 states with some form of crossbow hunting.

It isn’t perfect yet from what I’ve heard, because it was not made legal during (all) seasons when bows may be used for hunting. I am of the opinion that this illogical omission will be corrected in the next year or two, clearing the final hurdle.

It has been a long struggle – certainly longer than it should have been for such an innocuous piece of legislation.

The final step will no doubt be introduced next year, and before long, the crossbow will be an accepted weapon during any season.

In spite of bow hunters dire predictions and fears that the woods will be over-run with crossbow hunters, when the finish line is finally crossed, they will notice little or no difference as they pursue their own form of hunting with a bow.

Peace will come in a very short time, and this tempest in a teapot will settle down and no longer be a divisive topic for sportsmen.

It is my belief that the reason the crossbow did not cross that final hurdle this year was the legislators were seeking a compromise that would mollify both the crossbow and non-crossbow hunters, but in reality, they didn’t really please either party. Let’s hope next year they get it right.

Personally, I don’t have an iron in this fire. I don’t intend to buy a crossbow, and I would be unlikely to hunt with one during an early season even if there were one to hunt in.

I still like duck hunting too much to sit in the woods waiting for a deer to walk by. I will hunt with a bow for a few days this coming fall, because my grandson, Nathaniel, will be old enough to hunt deer with a bow, and he needs me to go with him. I’ll carry a bow just in case the unlikely takes place and I have a chance at a big buck. Nathaniel’s opportunity is the number one priority.

Nate and I will be practicing this summer in order to be prepared should that moment arrive when he is able to join the ranks of successful Archer, archer deer hunters. Knowing Nathaniel as I do, it will happen.

If you are one of the many hunters who have been waiting for the crossbow to be legalized in New York state, don’t forget to send a thank you to our legislators, especially to the leaders of the Senate and Assembly.

I expect those few bow hunters who were the most opposed to the new law will be sending notes voicing their displeasure. It would be good to let those people in Albany know that they got at least one thing right this year.

My son tells me the grass is starting to peek through since warm weather broke out. I don’t think there is much grass showing in Redfield, but it will happen.

I missed getting out on the trout opener. I hope those of you who were able to go fishing had a great day. I thought about you out here in Washington. I will be out there fishing with you very soon.

THE SPORTSMAN’S WORLD: The Art of Worming

By Leon Archer

When I was a kid, I learned to capture, care for and use fish worms.

The capturing and the using I enjoyed, but the caring for worms could be a bit of a pain. I learned early on that you couldn’t just gather a bunch of night crawlers and leave them in a bucket with a few leaves and expect that they were going to live happily ever after.

Nothing smells worse than a container full of dead worms. By trial and error, I learned to keep both the worms and my long-suffering parents happy; I learned the art of worming.

The art of worming consists of two distinct, yet vitally connected parts. The first part is the catching and caring for the worms. The second part is using the worms most efficiently for fishing.

I can’t prove it, but I firmly believe that the number one bait of fishermen, at least in Upstate New York, is the lowly worm. That’s probably why we kids called them fish worms.

More refined folks called them angle worms for the same reason. As long as they were available, they caught just about every kind of fish a kid wanted to fish for.

I even went so far one year as to nurse a few of them along in our basement until the ice was safe for fishing. I thought they might just be the magic bullet on hard water, but although they caught fish, they were no better than the minnows and jigs that we used.

The effort was hardly worth the returns, but other times of the year they were easy to procure and deadly on the fish.

Now when I say worms, there were two main types that I used for everything, night crawlers and what I call rain worms. I majored in night crawlers, but I didn’t ignore the smaller rain worms.

Night crawlers were easy to catch every spring, requiring only a flashlight, digital dexterity, and knees and a back that could stand an hour or two being bent over. On a good wet spring night, I could pick up 200 to 800 worms. It all depended on how wet I was getting and how soon my body started grumbling about the abuse.

I had several large, leaf filled boxes in the basement of our home. Each one was capable of holding up to a thousand worms safely for a long time, but in reality they came and went on a regular basis. I sold night crawlers and my father and I used plenty of them as well.

It wasn’t quite as simple as dumping them in and taking them out; there were certain chores connected with worm ranching.

After a few weeks, the remaining old leaves and worm castings had to be removed and new leaves put in the boxes. The removed residue was great for the family garden, but if left too long in the boxes before being replaced, it became toxic to the inmates.

If maintained properly, the worms were happy and my parents were happy.

It was extremely important to remove any dead worms or even those that did not act very lively. Usually dying worms would come to the surface of the leaves, but not always, so as I took worms out for sale or use, I was constantly on watch for the dead or dying.

When I did change the leaves in a box, I counted the worms into a bucket, allowing me to keep track of my inventory, before returning them to their refurbished home.

When picking up night crawlers, inevitably some will be broken as they are pulled from their burrows. Usually I dropped them back on the ground where most of them would survive if they got back underground. The others ended up feeding the robins the next morning.

If I knew we would be fishing in the next day or so, I would keep them, but sort them out when I got home. It was very unwise to try to keep them with the other worms. I tried to never put a damaged worm in the boxes; it was just asking for trouble down the road.

Rain worms are a different story. Because of their smaller size and very pale pinkish color, they were the very best worms for fishing for small brook trout. They were tougher and stayed on the hook better than a night crawler, which made them a pretty good bait for pan fish that could often rip a piece of night crawler off the hook without paying any penalty.

There were many times when a rain worm would do a better job than a night crawler.

I usually picked rain worms up off driveways, roads and sidewalks early in the morning. I also dug them. They are found in much larger numbers than night crawlers when digging worms.

I never tried to keep any great number of them, but they did very well in smaller containers with soil in the bottom and a layer of leaves over that.

Fishing with live worms is an art as well; one size does not fit all. Worm fishing for pan fish and small trout was the easiest; simple and straight forward, small worms and small hooks but larger species each had their own likes and dislikes when it came to worms. Big night crawlers became the go to bait, but how it was hooked made a difference.

A number 2 hook baited with a whole night crawler was our basic bait for bullheads. We wadded it up on the hook in small folds, going in and out the length of the worm. If much was left hanging off, the bullheads would just tear it loose and be gone. Rock bass were always eager to take a similar bait. Black bass, on the other hand wanted the worm loose and flowing, so we hooked them once or twice near the collar band of the worm. With walleyes, we hooked the worm as near to the head end as was feasible.

Rainbow and brown trout were the fussiest. The worm needed to look natural and whole. Part of a worm was usually ignored, and a worm bunched up on the hook like one was fishing for bullheads was a no starter right from the get go.

Most of my worm fishing for larger trout was done in the spring or after a heavy rain in the summer. High roily water increased one’s odds considerably. I almost always used a single snelled number 6 hook below a willow leaf or Dixie spinner.

The spinner caught the fish’s attention in the cloudy water, and as they homed in on it they would grab the night crawler. It was a deadly combination.

Even today, my favorite bait is the lowly earthworm. I still catch them and use them successfully. I know it is still cold and the snow cover is tenacious, but before long it will be time to start harvesting those wonderful night crawlers, and when that happens, spring fishing will be close behind.

Time for the art of worming.