Hunting With Nothing but a Shovel

What would you say if I told you it was possible to go out into the woods hunting with nothing more than a shovel and a game bag…yet you could still be successful? What would you say if I told you that if you were successful it could also mean lots of money in your pocket? Sound intriguing?

What I’m talking about is going out in the woods ginseng hunting. Ginseng is a woodland plant that carries with it a rich tradition in our American heritage. This once abundant plant was so popular and profitable that many stories were told of early settlers in Minnesota actually paying off their farm mortgages by digging this plant’s root and selling it. Unfortunately, the boon years of ginseng hunting are long ago behind us, yet it’s still possible to occasionally find this woodland root with a little luck and knowledge of its habitat requirements.

Ginseng’s popularity stems from the root that many folks believe to have certain medicinal properties. In fact, it is the root of the plant that is harvested and then air-dried by the ‘seng hunter. Native Americans used it for treating various ailments, but records show there was trade for the root going on with markets in the Orient dating back at least a couple of centuries. The Chinese have long believed the root to be an aphrodisiac and to aid one’s longevity. Most modern medicine authorities, however, have been skeptical about ginseng’s true benefit to the medical world.

Unfortunately, because of the high demand ginseng is a perfect example of a resource exploited almost to the point of becoming endangered. Someday soon, probably within our lifetimes, the wild strain of ginseng will likely be protected from any future harvest or trade.

I mention the wild strain of ginseng because today most ginseng in trade is cultivated thanks to large commercial farming operations. But the ginseng that is wild is truly the most sought after and good quality wild root this year will bring the hunter on average $250 to $300 per pound (dried). So, you can see that spending a few hours out in the woods can be profitable, if you know where to look.

The problem is most folks who hunt ginseng, and there are fewer and fewer people each year, will not disclose their locations. In fact, expecting someone to share their hotspots with you is quite unlikely. You see…when a ginseng hunter harvests the root with a trowel by law in Minnesota he is required to plant the red tell-tale seeds (berries) in the same general area. What this means is over the course of the years an area that has held ginseng in the past will likely continue to have it into the future. For much more in-depth information about the history and the harvesting requirements in Minnesota, click here.

I’ll be honest with you that since the mid-70s I have gone ginseng hunting but never been very successful at it. Only once have I been walking in the woods and found a nice patch that could have been harvested. The problem was that particular day I was squirrel hunting and I didn’t get permission from the landowner to do anything else but squirrel hunt…so I left it. Still, it was a very interesting sight…and it proved to be an educational moment for the others in my hunting party who would have walked right past the plant not knowing the significance of the find.

There are many good books that explain the necessary habitat for ginseng as well as showing the tell-tale saw-tooth edges of the leaves. Find a good book and make sure you know what it is you’re looking to discover. In the fall the best distinguishing characteristic is the bright red berries usually visible on the plant. But don’t mistake the Jack-in-the-pulpit plant for ginseng, as this plant will also have bright red berries during this time of the year. More importantly, ginseng will usually have prongs of three leaves that could potentially be mistaken with poison ivy to the unsuspecting novice. Use caution and consult a good guidebook.

Perhaps in the history of Minnesota there has been no other native plant that has been so profitable and intriguing to the person who invested the time to learn about it and search for it. The next time you are deep in the woods – where it typically only gets a couple hours of sunlight each day because of the mature trees filtering the light – be careful where you step.

© 2004 Jim Braaten. All Rights Reserved. No Reproduction without Prior Permission.

Calling Cards…The Ones Deer Leave

Right now is an exciting time in the woodlands. Not only are the trees going through their obvious transformation…but nature in general seems to have stepped up the pace as the doldrums of winter can be sensed by creatures large and small. Indeed, most of the woodland creatures are active for reasons as varied as the creatures themselves.

Yet, this time of the year is particularly interesting in the life of the whitetail deer. It’s a time when a buck’s thoughts turn to sex and the never-ending process of finding mates. For does, on the other hand, it can be a game of playing coy and staying distant until they come into their estrus cycle (meaning they are fertile and receptive to mating). This process of courtship is truly one of the most fascinating dramas that sportsmen get to experience, if only on a limited basis.

It all began several weeks ago when the bucks, or male deer with antlers, began the process of removing velvet from their summer antlers. Throughout much of the summer those antlers were a living, blood circulating bone that could grow as much as a ½ inch per day on top of a buck’s head. Then suddenly back in late August or early September the blood flow to the antlers began to shut down and the antlers hardened. The once soft “velvety” texture eventually dries and begins the process of sloughing. Experts tell us that at this stage for a deer it’s akin to us having a never-ending itch. Except for the deer, their goal is to remove the dried velvet and begin polishing the antlers for the upcoming courting process.

So how do deer accomplish this interesting process? Well, they leave their little calling cards all over in the woods for us hunters. During scouting sessions a keen eye will often spot numerous tree “rubs,” as they are called. Observing these rubs tell hunters several things. First, it is proof-positive that the woods contain a buck…as does will not leave such signs (caveat: there is a small percentage of does that will grow antlers, but typically it is only male deer). Second, rubs will also give some indication where deer like to hang out; they may even expose certain travel routes. But most importantly, the size of the rub can give the hopeful hunter a better understanding if there are any trophy deer carousing through the area.

Generally speaking, the rule of thumb is that a deer will choose a bigger tree or sapling based on their size. For instance, a young forkhorn might only use saplings the diameter of your thumb to rub the velvet. Then again, a very mature trophy buck might also use that same small sapling. But if you find a tree with a diameter the size of your clenched fist or bigger…well, then…you have likely stumbled upon one of the most encouraging sights to be found in the deer woods.

Experts contend that deer rubs serve many purposes besides removing velvet alone. It’s speculated that the larger the size of the tree the bigger the deer…and the reason is simple. This tree is much like a sparring dummy. Think of a boxer in a gym using a punching bag to prepare for an upcoming big fight. The deer is doing much the same. If it wants to be the king buck doing most of the breeding in a certain geographical area it will likely have to fight other would-be dominant bucks with sort of a winner-take-all championship. Thus, bigger trees will in turn build bigger neck muscles and perhaps give a big buck the edge it will need to win the courtship rights to most of the does.

An observant sportsman will use the discovery of rubs and put it into the proper time line for what is happening in the deer woods. A fresh rub will mean the breeding season is underway…albeit, the peak is probably another month or more away.

When you see a deer rub think of it as the equivalent of a wildlife business card with some opportunistic buck introducing itself to you…letting you know it’s in the woods. Then when you stumble upon a BIG deer rub, think of it as a business card akin to meeting a big-shot CEO showing lots of embossing, gold hot-stamping, etc. While each card can be equally effective in its purpose, the card that stands out is the one holding the most promise for future opportunity. This fall, don’t squander the introductions these deer try to make in your life…pay attention to all the signs they leave for you.

© 2004 Jim Braaten. All Rights Reserved. No Reproduction Without Prior Permission.

The Harvest Moon

Did you happen to notice the fall sky last evening? Did you even know there was a full moon? Maybe you knew that the first full moon of the fall sky was called the Harvest Moon.

You know, I don’t think a lot of sportsmen seem to care about it…but I am fascinated by the moon and stars and the role it plays in all of our outdoor lives. Often times when I am sitting quietly in the deer stand waiting for daybreak it is too damn dark to even see the palm of your hand. But glance up into the heavens and you’ll see a sky filled with curiosity and wonder.

Oddly enough, I think many of today’s modern citizens have lost their connection with the lunar cycles. If they happen to notice there’s a full moon…about the only meaning this has to their life is they can probably see the keyhole at night when unlocking the door to their house. But what a shame…because the moon plays such an important role in the life of most everything around us.

According to Indian legend the moon closest to the autumnal equinox was referred to as the Harvest Moon. It was aptly named because with the shortening daylight as we move towards winter, a full moon would give those extra hours of plant harvesting opportunity. Thus, the first moon of fall (or technically the first full moon closest to the AE) was known as the Harvest Moon. Many folks believe the Harvest Moon is the fullest and brightest moon of the entire year.

So, do you know what the other moons are called? Well, the next moon in succession after the Harvest Moon is called the Hunter’s Moon. Stands to reason…when cold weather has abruptly ended the growing season it hearkens a time in the lifecycle to focus efforts on building up the meat resources for those upcoming winter months.

How about the next full moon? Well, this one is commonly referred to as the Trapper’s Moon. This year, the Trapper’s Moon will occur on November 26th. Are you beginning to see a pattern here on how the names seem to correlate with what is happening in the Native American lifecycle? Other moons in the Native American lifecycle have names such as Snow Moon, Starvation Moon, Planting Moon, Worm Moon, etc. With just a little bit of imagination I’m sure you can figure out when most of these months occur.

But as a sportsman, my interest in the moon goes far beyond the cutesy little names that our forefathers and native folks gave the lunar cycle. For me it’s the mystery of the moon that holds the most intrigue. It seems as though the more mankind learns about the effects the moon has on the earth…the more questions that seem to arise.

Case in point. When waterfowl researchers started studying the migration patterns and habits of waterfowl, they soon discovered the moon and stars played an integral role in the movements of ducks and geese. In some mysterious sense, the stars acted much like a GPS guidance system allowing these birds to traverse thousands of miles to locate the very spot they migrated from only months earlier. Likewise, the moon acted almost like an atomic clock that would trigger an alarm for these birds to make the big trek.

So what are we to do about using the moon as a guide for us hunting? Well, Jeff Murray, an outdoors writer from Duluth, has some ideas. In fact, he’s taken the moon and its effects on nature to a new level. Murray believes if you are not paying attention to the moon you are not serious about your hunting. Check out more here.

Personally, I’m less interested in the moon’s apogee and perigee than I am in just seeing a beautiful full moon illuminating the night’s sky. Then last night, with the Harvest Moon burning bright…and the first killing frost of the season here in Minnesota…in my mind nature has now “officially” turned the page welcoming in the new fall season.

© 2004 Jim Braaten. All Rights Reserved. No Reproduction Without Prior Permission.