Tuesday, May 29, 2012

A Quiet Night, A Rod & Reel, and a couple of Unconventional Fillet Knives

When it comes to saltwater bay fishing I prefer the night.  Last night I fished the early morning hours in near silence save the occasional chirps of wandering seagulls and the sloshing waves waxing and waning with the tides.  It’s solitary fishing on a solitary pier.  Some people need crowds, or at least a group in which to participate in an activity.  Take them away from the gathering and their fun is gone.  But for some of us it’s the quiet, the seclusion and privacy, the chance to sit alone and think and listen and contemplate.  And in this case, it’s the chance to fish with no distractions or small talk or loud voices or any of the things that a group generally brings.

I fished from 10:00 to 11:30 pm then took an hour nap, awoke, ate a snack, drank some coffee and continued fishing until the first hints of dawn broke over the eastern sky.  Landed some speckled trout; kept the legal ones and let the others go.  In between I filleted my keepers with a couple of new knives I acquired recently from el seƱor Ragnar at Ragweed Forge.  Neither knife is what you’d call a bona fide fish filleting knife.  One knife is called The Craftsman and the other the Sports Knife.

The Craftsman is a basic stainless steel Mora knife with a 4 1/8 inch long blade that’s .079 inch thick.  The handle is robust with a very slight guard.

The Sports Knife is also stainless steel and smaller than the Craftsman with about a 3 ¾ inch blade that’s .078 inch thick.  The handle is shorter and it comes in various colors.  It has a distinct double guard and this feature actually comes in handy when filleting slimy fish.  You’ll note this knife also has a pronounced “sticker” or clip with a sharp point.

But these knives are designed for other chores and as such some people might suspect they make poor filleting tools.  Well, yes and no, I guess.  The Craftsman is perhaps a bit too bulky for proper filleting but the little Sports Knife does a good job.  At least it did a good enough job on what I caught and the knife took less than fifteen dollars from my wallet.  Buy a “proper” fillet knife and you’ll spend twice as much.  That’s no big deal unless you ask, “Do I really need more?”  That’s something you’ll have to answer for yourself.  I weighed the pros and cons and, at least for now, am content with both knives…favoring the Sports Knife somewhat over the Craftsman.  My only critique is that I don't care for the term “sports knife.”

Dawn appears beyond the bay not in sequential steps but as if a switch was abruptly flicked.  The first light is nothing more than a hint of change.  But it does not come on gradually.  You look and a second before it was pitch black and now you notice color—an anemic pink with hints of orange and if you had not paid attention you would not have noticed.  It is simply not there one second and there the next.  From the boat docks about a mile to the south comes the first noise.  Judging from the noise you’d think a race was on.  And so the quiet is gone and will stay gone until all “the sportsmen” have buzzed about racing from one point to another.  Then the night will return and they will party or drive home and be happy or disappointed depending on whether they caught fish or not.  Much camaraderie, a toast and then another to success or failure or for no reason at all.  Let’s race over there and then over there, and when the sun disappears they do too.  So I will walk the long pier and sit and take possession of the night.  Listening to seagulls chirping and waves sloshing, and thinking about things in particular and nothing in general.  The hours slip by like schools of fish coming into the light.  Last night it was speckled trout.  Tonight it will be red drum.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

French Bush Hat

Back in the mid-1980s a catalog arrived from a mail order firm calling itself “Banana Republic.”  After a few pages perusing the booklet, I was smitten.  The catalog had all the kinds of stuff I like.  There were classic khaki pants, a neat photojournalist vest, a gear bag to beg for, heavy cotton shirts styled like the ones Gable and Grainger wore in a couple of African safari films, and there was this heavyweight cotton hat with a large brim called the French Bush Hat.  Now years before in an army surplus store I’d seen a hat that looked exactly like the one in the catalog.  The hat was in a bin filled with all sorts of WWII paraphernalia and when I saw it I thought, This is perfect for the Texas Brushlands.  The only problem was the hat was too small for my head.  I’ve always had a hard time finding hats that fit and even XL sizes are sometimes tight.  The hat in the surplus bin was a size Small.  I was disappointed but after looking through all the bins to see if per chance I could find a size XL I gave up and until that catalog arrived had not thought about it.

Apparently, this particular style of hat was used by French forces in Indochina during the late 1940s.  It might have been employed in other campaigns as well, but this is not a historical piece so let’s talk about the usefulness of this hat for places where the sun is fierce and the days are long.  I ordered a French Bush Hat and the first one that arrived was marked XL but it must have been made for Lilliputians because it didn’t fit.  I returned the hat and Banana Republic apologized and said they were getting another shipment with sizes more appropriate to American heads.  About a month or so later I ordered another hat and the one that arrived was perfect.  Traditional khaki with a heavy mesh burlap inner layer, the hat was simple yet elegant and timeless.  So, of course, I ordered two more.  Now I wish I’d ordered ten more!  That was 26 years ago and I put one hat and then the next through several thousand miles of sun, wind, dust, thorns, rain (it does rain here occasionally), and now I’m on the last of the three.  Actually, this third hat alone has journeyed across deserts, mountains, jungles, forests and of course brushlands too.

Unfortunately, the hat I have—the official Banana Republic French Bush Hat I bought decades ago—is as endangered as the Texas Horned Lizard.  Ebay has a French Bush Hat now and then but they are invariably Munchkin size.  You see, somewhere along the line Banana Republic morphed from the great adventurous mail order house it was into just one more mono-dimensional and boring shopping mall store.  Just like several hundred other mono-dimensional, boring, yawn, yawn, yawn….

So here I am doing my best to keep this ol’ threadbare rag of a hat alive though I fear its days are numbered.  Too bad some entrepreneur doesn’t decide to resurrect something paralleling the hat in the photos.  The heavy-weight burlap mesh acts as insulation much the same way that an ice chest keeps its contents cool even on the hottest days.  Remember this isn’t a thin piece of gear but a stalwart defense against el sol.  Even so, the cotton breathes and the three-inch brim keeps the sunlight away from the eyes, ears and nose.  Remember too that nothing suggests an impending case of skin cancer better than those gimme-caps you see a lot of folks wearing these days.  Fashioned after baseball caps, I guess, they do nothing to protect the ears and the side of the face from sunburn.  By-the-way, the ears are extremely sensitive to sunburn and if you ever see a dermatologist that’s the first place checked when examining your head for signs of cancer.

Maybe somebody knows of a source for these hats.  If you do then send me an email and I’ll share it with everyone else who visits the blog.  These are darn good hats!

Friday, May 25, 2012

Pre-Clovis Bone Points and Theories on the Earliest Settlements in the Americas

The earliest migrations into the Americas have been estimated at about 10,000 years ago.  That hypothesis, however, is being revised further and further back as researchers gather data about the first people who trekked across the land from Asia to populate the New World.  Perhaps even more intriguing is evidence that bone points used in spears preceded stone points.  I have wondered if bone points were, in fact, always more commonly used than stone points regardless of the time-frame.  Bone points are easier to make and not as prone towards breakage.  From a practical perspective—especially when considering the logistics surrounding the first settler’s lives—it seems that fashioning points from bone would be less energy consuming and thus preferred.  Of course, bone points (like wooden spears, atlatls, bows and arrows) are subject to decay over time.  As has been suggested by others the availability of stone points presents a skewed picture of what types of piercing implements were most popular.  In fact, one critic suggested that a thousand years from now archaeologists will find more evidence of life between ten and five thousand years past than they will of the current age—thus is the physical persistence of stones.

Below are two articles that you might find interesting regarding research into settlement dates and the use of bone points.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Crooked Knife Blade Shapes

Woodcarvers sometimes ask me to leave a little more steel on the crooked knives I make for them so they can customize the blade bevels.  So I’ll make a knife that’s sharp but with enough room on the blade to allow for re-contouring.  Of course, I also make crooked knives with blades that are designed for specific woodcarving tasks.  Crooked knives can also have varying handle shapes and I touch on that in the following video as well as in an earlier video I made about a year ago.

You know you’ve got too many crooked knives when those around you tell you to start selling them because they’ve got no place to put things: “You’ve got knives in boxes, drawers, canvas bags!!….”  So I’m going to open an Etsy account and sell some of my crooked knives.  I’ll put a link to my “store” on the Woods Roamer Home Page in a few days and if you’re interested in getting a crooked knife then you can go to my place on Etsy and maybe you’ll see something you like.

Here’s a short video on crooked knife blade shapes.  You might want to check out my earlier video on crooked knives as well as my postings a year ago on various crooked knives.

PS: In the video you can hear male bobwhite quail around my place whistling up potential girlfriends.  This goes on all day long.  I’ve got a lot of doves in love too but I’m not sure if you can hear them on the video.


Monday, May 21, 2012

Chaotic Climate

We have had some strange weather as of late.  A nearby city called McAllen (part of a sprawling, congested and otherwise colorless metroplex) suffered two devastating hail storms a few weeks back.  Local meteorologists are predicting an active tropical storm season (in other words, we might get a hurricane), and the drought is still upon us, although recent rains, and hail, have moistened the ground somewhat.  I see that to the northwest the state of Arizona is already experiencing some nasty wildfires and it’s expected to get worse since the West and Southwest had nary a winter and their drought continues unabated.  We used to never get tornadoes in this region but four times in the last few weeks we’ve been under tornado warnings around our place.  Of course, there’s also the sun to deal with.  And perhaps, that’s the root of our conundrum since heat—or the augmentation of hotness—is creating not simply a condition known as “warming” but in real terms a situation more accurately described as “chaos.”  You can use innocuous and otherwise namby-pamby terms like “climate change” in an attempt to undermine the issue and therefore give license to continued hedonism and recklessness.  But the truth is that things are not going well in many places, and the “let’s claim it doesn’t exist” tactic, as well as holding up a queue of quacks to buttress such nonsense does nothing to fix the problem.  I guess it’s inevitable that scientific data should become a political issue when empirically derived observations conflict with our holiest held ideology, “profit no matter the outcome.”

So here we are with droughts, hailstorms, tornadoes, hurricanes, blizzards, floods, and soon to see water shortages, crop failures, increased diseases (more on that in a later post), and yet at the same time we keep digging the hole deeper and deeper.  So here’s my question: How deep do you want to make this grave?

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Making Bone Arrow Points with Hand Tools

I imagine a number of you have made bone arrow points using stone tools.  That’s an interesting exercise and I have enjoyed going primitive on several occasions to fashion arrows and arrow points, bows, strings and the like with rocks and teeth.  But this post is about using conventional steel tools like files and rasps and also store bought sandpaper.  Likewise, it’s about keeping things quiet.  I live in the woods where there are no sirens, car horns, diesel trucks, lawnmowers or any of those other obscenities associated with “modern society.”  And I’m not about to destroy this peaceful milieu by introducing motorized racket: No belt sanders, rotary tools or whatever else passes for construction in that other world beyond the gate.

Anyway, a neighbor’s cow went to bovine heaven a few months ago.  The vultures, coyotes and various beetles had a great feast and now the bleached bones lie randomly scattered and ready for various projects—in this case arrow points.  I began by gathering the ribs.  Cow ribs are tough structures and make excellent tools.

The above photo shows a cow’s rib that’s already been cut into a section and is ready for further cutting.  I’m holding a blank point in one hand and you can see another blank point on the table.

Using a coping saw I cut the rib in half lengthwise.  Be careful you keep the cut in a straight line so you can use both halves to make points.

These are the tools I generally use.  I won’t necessarily use all those tools on every arrow point but I have the option to choose various implements as need be.

Once I’ve cut the rib in half lengthwise (or at least a piece I intend to make into a point) I’ll begin removing the spongy bone within the rib.

I use a rasp to scrape off the spongy bone.

Here you can see how the rasp is removing the spongy bone.

Now that the spongy bone has been removed I’ll start to shape the point using a fine mill file.

Here you see the bone point is starting to take shape.

Because the rib is slightly convex the arrow point must be carefully filed in order to eliminate the curvature and give the arrow a straight profile.  Go slowly here because if you overdo things you’ll just make the curvature worse.  Remember also to go in reverse to what might seem the logical direction.  In other words, you will straighten the bone by going up against the curvature in order to obtain the straight line you are seeking.

The above photo shows the back of the point.  Again, the rib’s shape in cross-section is thicker on one end and thinner on the other.  You will want to even out the profile.  You will use both a fine mill file and sandpaper to get the lines straight and even.  Don’t be impatient.  File or sand a little bit and then check the results.  Go slowly!

Here I’m using 80-grit sandpaper to flatten the outer part of the rear section of the point.  Again, it’s important to go slowly and check your work frequently.

I use various grades of sandpaper ranging from 80-grit to 500-grit.

Now it’s beginning to look nice.  I’ve got the proportions top to bottom, left to right and in cross-section all worked out and have smoothed out the bone using increasingly fine grit sandpaper.

I use a fine rat-tail file to fashion the notches on either side of the point.  Make sure you get the notches even on both sides or the point will not be symmetrical.

A labor of love: Bone points are actually stronger than stone points and nearly as strong as steel points.  The above points are suitable for medium or large game up to the size of white-tailed deer.  Using fine grit sandpaper I’ve honed the edges to a razor sharp finish.  These points will cut you!

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The Walking Stick

I’m not a frequent user of walking sticks.  Others around me use them so I make them sticks and now and then I use them too.  These are not fancy sticks, though in my mind the beauty of the wood takes precedence over carvings and the like.  Some people carve their walking sticks.  I’ve seen trolls and gnomes and goblins and eagle’s heads carved at the tops of handles.  I’ve seen sticks shaped like serpents and once at the beach on South Padre Island I saw a fellow with a walking stick fashioned in the form of a pirate’s sword.  Some walking sticks leave me cold.  I was at an upscale outdoors store in Austin not long ago and they were selling “hiking staffs” made of aluminum and other assorted alloys.  They had fancy price tags on them and I wondered why anyone would spend so much money on a metal pipe when all one needs is to cut a branch of appropriate length and head out.  I read a book by Colin Fletcher called The Secret Worlds of Colin Fletcher and he had a practical view on walking sticks.  Fletcher is considered one of the founding fathers of modern backpacking.  Now I’m not a devotee of carrying heavy packs and I think packing skills trumps lugging around dozens of pounds of “things,” but even Fletcher believed in just snapping a branch and then using it to stabilize himself and his load of stuff when hiking the backwoods.

 People have different ideas of what constitutes the appropriate length for a walking stick.  Here in the South Texas Brushlands a stick must serve more than one purpose.  It’s not just a staff used to aid in hiking but it also serves as an early warning system to probe areas that might harbor rattlesnakes.  You know I’ve had some problems with rattlesnakes this past year but over the last couple of weeks I’ve killed seven monsters within two-hundred feet of my house.  In fact, the other night I was goofing around in my little workshop and I looked beyond the rim of lamplight and saw something that in the last 60 years has become imprinted on my cerebral radar screen: That quintessential bogey that raises the early warning system and puts me at DEFCON 1.  I grabbed a flashlight and pistol and walked over to the anomaly and saw what ultimately measured 74.5 inches of pure hell.

We think of "workshop hazards" but how many of you have ever considered something like this.  This snake was just a few feet from my shop (just an overhang connected to a storage shed) and it went over six feet long.

My sticks range between 52-53 inches and I use the top part of the branch as the bottom of the stick and the bottom part of the branch as the handle.  I’ve used various woods like chaparro prieto (Acacia rigidula), mesquite (Prosopis glandulosa), guajillo (Acacia berlandiera), and Granjeno (Celtis pallida) for my sticks and perhaps I’ve used other woods but I can’t remember all of them.  Some woods are too heavy and that is my other concern when making a walking stick.  It should be strong but lightweight.  The three sticks in the pictures are all made from granjeno.  This is a ticklish wood to work with because though it dries to a nice light weight it also has a tendency to check and split if not properly cured.  So I’ll leave the bark on a few months and then, using one of my crooked knives, shape the stick to the dimensions I prefer.  I’ve capped off sticks with all sorts of things but I’ve been using ½ and ¾ inch PVC lately because I’ve got a cache of pipe around the house and it seems to work okay.  I drill a quarter inch hole about ½ inch from the top of the stick and thread some parachute cord through it to serve as an aid in holding.

I don’t give the sticks a fine sanding because I want a firm grip so I’ll take it down with 80 grit paper and leave it there.  I paint my sticks with clear urethane and that seals the wood and protects it as well.  And best of all, I did it myself.  I didn’t spend any mullah at any upscale outdoors store.  Just remember the KISS Principle, folks.

Friday, May 4, 2012

The Bitter Fruit Amargosa

In South Texas and northern Mexico thousands of kids, and probably as many adults, have been forced or at least reluctantly acquiesced to take a dose of Amargosa.  The word means, “bitter” and is aptly applied.  The plant is in the family Simaroubaceae, a small clan confined primarily to tropical regions.  Amargosa is known scientifically as Castela texana—the genus in honor of a French naturalist named Castel and the species noting its presence in the state of Texas.  Amargosa extract is taken either from the roots or stems and is used in the treatment of Entamoeba histolytica.  The efficacy of this treatment has been the subject of several scientific inquiries and to date the results are promising.  But she is a bitter mouthful and when those who have swallowed the brew are asked to describe the experience the answer usually comes not with words but via facial contortions.  A friend of mine says it was his mother’s catchall cure for any sort of stomach or intestinal ailment.  “She even used it to treat skin rashes,” he said.  To which he adds, “But I’m here to tell you it’s nasty stuff.”

Below are a few scientific articles on the efficacy of Castela texana.

Amargosa is also known as Goat Bush or Allthorn Castela. 

thanks for your condolences

Thanks to those who took the time to send their condolences regarding my dog, Chucha.  We buried her last Saturday not too far from the house.  Through the trees I can see her grave and in the evenings I’ll glance over that way and reminisce.  Lots of special thoughts came from so many readers and I’ll remember them all.  One very special message came from J.R. Guerra who wrote, "Take comfort that she lived like a dog should, unchained and free to wander in the open air."

Thanks again,