"Bayou Bill" Scifres
Dedicated to the conservation and enjoyment of Indiana's natural resources
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Recent Rambles
Copyright © 2003 by Bill Scifres
January [written January 2003]

Many of my friends over the years have shuddered at the thought--or mention--of January. Me? I like it!
I like January for many reasons and they all stem from the fact that it can be our only real-and-true month of winter.
Oh, I know! Some Januarys are highly non-typical on the warm side, but if you consider rank-and-file Januarys you will find that this month is more like winter than any of the others--maybe all of the others combined.
So what does January offer that flips my cork so nicely?
First and foremost, January offers better ice-fishing conditions than any other month. Ice fishing almost always starts in the northern tier counties about Christmastime (it beat that by a couple of weeks this year). But when it comes to producing ice and other rotten (in the eyes of summer lovers) conditions, December often thinks it still is November. As a result, those simulated swaths of winter don’t last long.
But in a real January--like, say the January of 1936--the weather gets good/bad (depending upon your preferences) and it stays that way for a while.
In 1936, as I fondly recall it, the weather turned good (colder than well-diggers gets in the Yukon), and it snowed, forgetting how to stop.
On Christmas vacation--and on through January for six weeks--the Muscatatuck River was frozen so well that we could skate all the way from Slate Ford Bridge to Tobias Bridge (a distance by river of about three miles). When we did this we would build huge bonfires at both ends for those who were less adventurous, but liked to skate or be with the crowd.
When the snow hit it got so deep that groups of boys would go out with nothing more than shinny clubs to bean rabbits as the scurried along deep paths in the snow between brush piles. Everybody got fat on rabbits that year.
Once on a cold winter night at the Sports Show (in February, but a real January spills over into February), a reader approached me with a question he considered moot.
“What is your most exciting outdoor moment? he said, continuing: “Don’t you think it is a big bass whacking a surface lure just before dark on a still, summer afternoon?”
“Nope!” I said, noting that show patrons were coming in bundled up like they had just gotten off an express train from Nome.
Knowing that I would have to be pretty convincing to compete with this guy, I said: “My most exciting moment comes just before dark when I have been sitting on my five gallon bucket on six inches of ice with an ice pole in each hand as I jig the little bobbers, just as I have been doing all afternoon with little, or no, success.
“It has been hours since I polished off my last peanut butter and jelly sandwich, the big red apple I brought along is just a memory, the thermos that contained the cream of tomato soup produces an empty rattle when I nudge it along the ice with my insulated boot, and I just spilled my last cup of coffee because my hands were blue and stiff from exposure to the raw winter day.
“The wind out of the northwest is something fierce and the snow it carries seems to bite as it hits my bare knuckles. I snuggle deeper into the sheepskin-lined coat and pull the parka string tighter while entertaining the thought that I should either light the lantern or collect my gear and get out of here.
“Then it happens! In the lull between jigs, the little bobber nudges ever so slightly and rolls over on its side. Then it sinks half an inch and just sits there. 

My arm shoots the tip of the little pole skyward and a throbbing sensation tells my frigid body all the way to the tips of my toes that there is a fat slab bluegill on the other end of the two-pound test line.
“That is my most exciting moment,” I said, emphasizing the fact that I do not look down my nose at big bass that attack surface lure late on a quiet summer day.
Actually, I lied a little.
Usually, when asked to put a name on my most interesting or exciting outdoor activity, I respond with: “Whatever I happen to be doing.”
That could be several other things that I look forward to in January. But it does not exclude the things I do in the other 11 months of the year.
Still, a few inches of good, dry snow (we haven’t been so blessed thus far this year) creates conditions for tracking a rabbit, mink or a fox, or just getting out to see Mother Nature’s children, and how they survive the winter.
Tracking rabbits with the glint in my eyes of a fried rabbit dinner (with hot biscuits, gravy and other trimmins’) occupies a special spot in my heart and tummy. But the hunt itself can be food of another kind, even therapy.
A rabbit-tracking hunt can turn into a social event when other hunters participate, but solo hunts can be rewarding in many ways as the tracks of a dryshin lead a hunter to dozens of places where nature’s scenarios have been played out by other species of birds and animals. Tracking a fox or mink can offer experiences that are just as rewarding, with never a shot fired.
The tracker may never see either the mink or fox he is tracking, but chances are good that “Old Reynard” will see the tracker.
I once tracked a fox through river-bottom fields of corn stubble for two hours or more before the tracks led to a hillside. There the “quarry” had sat on his haunches in a clump of weeds long enough to melt a round spot in the snow--curiously watching me. But I never saw the fox--a beautiful red whose descendants may have denned in my front-yard jungle last summer--until another day, another snow, when I “outfoxed” him by leaving the tracks and circling to a spot where I thought he would go. But even then, I did not shoot.   

Still another interesting winter experience awaits those who bundle up to ward off the chill of a winter night and go sit in a deer stand that remains for that purpose after hunting seasons have closed. A full moon night is best for this and snow makes it even better. However, full-moon nights usually are colder.
January also offers many other activities, the least of which is not floating squirrel-duck hunts on larger rivers and streams that occasionally are running well above normal because of melting snow or rain.
The two forks of White River in the southern half of the state are best for this (the Wabash is a bit large), but some mid-sized rivers also produce good hunting for both squirrels and waterfowl, including Canada geese.

{Note to Reader: The dates referenced below applied in 2003 when this "Ramble" was written and are not current.}

The North Zone seasons on both ducks and geese have been closed since last month, but the seasons on ducks remains open through January 14 in the South Zone and through January 19 in the South Zone.
Hunting for geese also closed last month in the North Zone, but the seasons remain open through January 31 in both South and Ohio River Zones.
White River, though not at flood staged, remained above normal and floatable on January 3, but cold weather will stop the runoff of snow melt and rain. That will lower the rivers back to winter-normal levels and make them more difficult to float.
However, dabbling ducks require hard matter (small stones, or sand) for their gizzards and they use riffles of rivers to get it. Thus, if good scouting (or incidental knowledge) locates such places a good decoy set (or simply playing a waiting game) can bring action.
Both ducks and geese like harvested grain fields, especially places where wind has swept away snow.
If smaller streams ice up, suckers can provide an interesting afternoon of snaring fish through ice holes on riffles. If these water are not covered with ice--or even if they are--channel cats and other species congregate in deep holes, and a gob of night crawler fished on the bottom could bring action, not to mention a great winter fish dinner.
Then, of course, sucker fans also can start gigging (spearing) these bony-but-great-tasting denizens as soon as they start going to the riffles at night to spawn.
Nighttime gigging is confined to rivers that have a minimum flow of 1,500 cubic feet of water per second. These usually are listed in the Division of Fish and Wildlife’s Fishing Guide. Gigging also is permitted on smaller streams, but only from sunrise to sunset.
For those who just want to try their luck with hook and line, suckers will take gobs of earthworms (I like garden worms best, but the tails of night crawlers will take fish, as will bee moth larva and some other maggot-like naturals).
Deep water around the mouths of creeks and the edge of channels are good places to try this kind of fishing. Because much of the success in this kind of sucker fishing depends on feeling the bite, straight up-and-down tightlining with long pole and line that is easy to see are best. Smallish hooks are a must because suckers do not have big mouths. Weight should be just heavy enough to keep the bait on the bottom.
Setlines strung across streams and river just below--or on--riffles also will take fish. Deep holes bisected by faster-water channels also are good spots for setlining.
January even offers some interesting activities for those who couldn’t care less about activities that hinge on hunting or fishing.
For example, if your neighbor failed to get that huge buck he was hunting throughout the deer season, you may be able to get him now--or at least his rack. The sport, which is gaining popularity, is known as “shed hunting.”
Deer start “shedding” their antlers at this time of year and these works of art may be salvaged by those who will look for them. Since deer are pretty much homebodies, a search of places where they jump fences or rub against brush are good bets. 
Then, of course, there is digging sassafras roots while the sap is in that part of the “trees.”
Sassafras tea (see recipe page of this web site) is a tasty beverage when sweetened. Steaming sassafras tea with honey is a late-winter must for country folks.


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All columns and stories are copyrighted by Bill Scifres and may not be reproduced in any form without prior permission from the author's heirs.  For reproduction permission and media usage fees, contact: Scifres Family, 6420 East 116th Street, Fishers, IN 46038, E-mail: billscifres@aol.com

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