Thursday, November 2, 2017

Deer Hunting

There's a time for everything, and around here it's about time for deer hunting. As much as I hate to see October bird hunting and fishing end, it happens every year, and every year I say the same thing. This year the weather helped push out our favorite month. It started snowing the last days of October and hasn't really stopped yet. One day I was fishing and the next came 6 inches of heavy, wet snow. I thought it would melt and Gabby and I could go find some grouse, but more snow came. Sure, the ground is still warm and trying to melt the snow, but I plowed eight inches out of my driveway this morning. Heavy wet snow bending the trees and brush makes for some tough hiking so we stayed close to home wondering if winter is settling in.

A few days ago I drove up to my deer hunting territory to check a little ladder stand I hauled into the woods years ago. My stand is not quite a half mile from the road, but it took me an hour to get to it. I expected some trail trimming would be needed and I brought a pair of long handled nippers and camp saw, but I wasn't ready for what I found. I couldn't find my old trail and ended up cutting and marking in a new route for the first half of the way. Things opened up along the rock faces and scrub oak near the top of the hill and I soon found my trail and was looking at my cold and lonely deer stand.

We all know people who are good at everything they do. It all seems just too easy for them. They stand next to you and catch the biggest fish effortlessly while you cast over and over with the exact same fly before you finally break it off on the one piece of brush within a hundred yards. They never practice shooting but they drop thick cover grouse and lightning fast ducks with fluid swings and wonder why you have a pocket full of shells when the limit is only a few birds. Come opening deer season they tell how they passed on a couple of eight-point bucks waiting for something bigger – which they kill the next morning.

I'm pretty much the opposite of those folks. I like doing all that stuff but it almost never works out the way I'd hoped, and when it does it's mostly a matter of luck. I've considered a lifestyle of reading and playing checkers, but that's still on the back burner. Deer hunting is the worst. I've killed a few deer in my day, but there's no rhyme or reason why they wandered into my sight. I didn't track them down. I didn't knowingly intercept them going to a feeding or bedding area. I just happened to be there when their luck ran out. The only skill I can claim is that I held the rifle steady – but they weren't very far away. I hunt big wilderness country. That's my criteria – if there's a chance of seeing someone else out there, I stay away. There is better deer habitat than where I hunt but good cover is easy to spot and it draws other hopeful hunters. I once topped a hill and looked down at a recent cutting and saw orange-clad hunters every hundred yards or so surrounding the place. That's not for me.

I found my stand location by accident. Years ago I was still-hunting when I took a break to lean on a pine tree and eat a sandwich and ponder what to do when a buck walked by. It was thick cover and I only saw legs and antlers and had no shot. A bit later another buck came from behind, snorted and crashed off giving me only a glimpse. The next year I hauled that little stand up there and tied it to the tree I was leaning against. I've killed a number of bucks from that stand. Apparently it's a good spot. I don't know why.

I'm hoping to set up camp tomorrow. It's snowed 6 or 8 inches more since I was up there and I'm not sure if I can get to my camp clearing. I'll find out tomorrow. Shoot straight.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Difference of a day.

It was only a week or so ago I was fitting a new camo cover to my canoe. I envisioned  flocks of migrating waterfowl dropping into the rice lake near here and I wanted to be ready. Sometimes the anticipation is almost as fun as the doing and making the preparations adds to the confidence level. So if the ducks don't show, at least my canoe was camo'd.

Almost everyday my setter Gabby and I get out for some bird hunting. There were days when we hunted the cool mornings and took it easy the warm afternoons. Other days we were out all day. Just the other day we were out until dark finding and shooting grouse and woodcock in a huge just-the-right-age aspen cover. Pulling off the boots after a day of wing-shooting is the best kind of tired.

Yesterday Scotty and I met up and floated a section of one of our favorite rivers, casting big flies and expecting heavy strikes from the muskies we know live there. A couple of northern pike were landed but the big muskies evaded us. It was a neat autumn day on the river, however, and we watched eagles, swans, geese, and even saw a nice buck deer trotting back and forth on an island perhaps to impress the doe that was with him. Most of the leaves are down, leaving the kind of brown and gray landscape we outdoor folks appreciate, and the bright red winter berries and highbush cranberries stood out like decorations. We talked a little about the predicted winter storm coming and joked some about how today's weather-casters seemed to blow things out of proportion. On my drive home I hit rain north of Duluth and a few flurries were falling by the time I reached home. I crawled in the sack wondering if it would amount to anything.

This morning it looked like winter hit for real. A blanket of heavy wet snow covering everything. We all hope it will melt off but the forecast looks like it might be here awhile. I've been looking at the duck boat for a week procrastinating about putting it away before the snows came. Hhmmm.

When I got to town last night I stopped for a beer and to hear a good northland musician play a couple of songs before completing the drive home. I didn't stay long and a hard working friend asked why I was leaving so soon. I explained I was real tired from being up hours before dawn and driving a long way to go fishing all day. “Gee,” she said, “that sounds rough, I feel sorry for you.” Her sarcasm was understandably thick. Why do I tell people this stuff?


Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Oct. report

Along about mid-summer, I suppose, the Minnesota DNR announced to the world that the spring ruffed grouse drumming counts were up some 57% from last year. They had to get word out in time for folks around the country to plan their hunting trips to The Land of 10,000 Lakes. A year before, the DNR told us the drumming counts were up 25% higher than the year before that. That's a heck of an increase in a two year period. Some would think there must be a grouse under every bush.

A lot happens between springtime courting and fall shooting. If there were a way to keep track of brood survival into July I believe we'd have a more accurate idea of what to expect come hunting season, but there are some things better left a mystery. I don't pay much mind to spring drumming counts because I'm going to hunt no matter what they say, though I hope they serve a purpose more meaningful than selling licenses.

Well, it seems those who study and report those findings are now scratching their noggins and admitting the grouse season is nothing as expected. Everywhere I go folks are saying the same thing, “There are no birds!” Of course that's not true, but I have to say this is the kind of bird season that temps a person to go fishing.

Despite it all, Gabby and I are enjoying our time in the woods. OK, so we're not finding a lot of grouse but we're finding some grouse every time out. I've been following bird dogs hunting grouse for some forty years. I doesn't matter if the bird counts are high or low, following an enthusiastic dog in the autumn woods with a comfortable shotgun in hand is a pleasure you take as it comes and don't take for granted.

Sometimes I think it would be neat to be able to “catch and release” while hunting – to make a successful shot over a nice dog, admire the bird, and turn it loose to live on. Of course that's not possible and, after all, ruffed grouse are wonderfully delicious. And when the grouse shooting is slow, like this year, we usually find enough woodcock to keep things interesting. Gabby loves it all, points her game beautifully, and is a pleasure to hunt with. I love fall fishing, but October was made for bird hunting.

And October is winding down, already. I hope you're enjoying it as much as I am.

Thursday, October 5, 2017


This evening I cleaned my gun and was standing near the garage caring for the birds I shot today when I heard a grouse drumming. Fall time grouse drumming is not rare but tonight it seemed especially welcome after a beautiful day in the woods. The first thing I thought of was how many hunters are outside their camps right now hearing what I heard. It's an absolutely wonderful evening – perfectly still, clear sky, cooling to likely frost by morning – during our favored month of October.

The great outdoor writers, now gone, like Spiller, Foster, and Evans, would christen October the Grandest Month for all the sport it provides. For me following bird dogs pursuing ruffed grouse and woodcock are the headliner. Toss in an occasional outing for sharptails, huns, and pheasants, and don't forget the waterfowl and you can eat up a month in a hurry. And if that's not enough (of course it's not) there's the fall run of steelhead and brown trout and the big autumn muskies are stocking up before winter! Sometimes it's hard to decide which direction to head and everyone who loves the rod and gun laments the briefness of October.

Yesterday morning I was in a little sneak boat alongside the duck huntingest guy I know. Sitting low on my tail with legs stretched out in front and rowing two miles alongside AT in the dark tested my back and hip joints (I'd say the boat won) but once we were set up all was good. Ducks were seen, ducks were shot, and ducks were missed. We'd lay on our backs in the boats covered with blind material to our chests, only our heads stuck above the gunwales. If we couldn't lure the birds to our front there would be no shooting and twice AT rowed out to pick up the kill and adjust the decoys more to his liking. I've never hunted ducks quite like that and if nothing else I'm happy for the experience.

The weather has been tough for upland hunting, early season heat in the 80's and then days of rain. Finally today dawned cool and clear and so far the nicest day yet. There's still a lot of heavy foliage, but fall colors are taking over and we were able to get into some birds. Gabby messed up a little, twice while she was on point she saw the grouse running on the ground and couldn't resist the chase. I wasn't perfect either and I missed what should have been a given straightaway shot. But we brought home enough to fire up the grill and tomorrow looks to be nice as well.  

Tonight I think I'll sip some of my favorite and finish tying up a large muskie fly for a float trip next week. Happy Autumn!

Sunday, October 1, 2017


In 1969 Joe Cocker stood on the stage at Woodstock and ripped out his rendition of the Beatles song “With a Little Help From My Friends.” It's still my favorite version and I turn up the volume whenever I hear it on the radio. No, I wasn't there. I was too young and it's not likely I would have gone given the chance. I was busy trying to figure out wing-shooting, trout fishing, and Blake & Lamb traps and never really had much hippie blood or rebellion in me. But that song...

I've spent more time in drift boats these last few years than I ever thought I would and I can thank my friends for that. I've enjoyed the good fortune of floating and fishing countless river miles in one of five different boats owned by my buddies. From the maneuverable rockered traditional hulls to the openness of skiffs to the portability and toughness of the inflatable.
The neat thing about friends with driftboats is they're always keeping an eye out for someone to fish with. That's where I come in. Trout, bass, muskies, pike caught from Wisconsin to Montana out of these boats and though they are something of a glorified row boat, there's nothing like drifting a river and fly casting comfortably from a drift boat. Moving steadily without motor noise; quiet as a canoe you can hold a conversation while never knowing what you might sneak up on around the next bend.

I've long been attracted to the design of a simple boat. Here in the land of lakes motorboats are common and some are fantastic with airplane looking cockpits and giant outboards hanging on the transoms, but my eye is drawn to and appreciates the graceful lines of the canoes which are as plentiful as Lund fishing boats. The blueprint schemes of canoes and drift boats are more parallel than being simply human-powered, though "human powered" speaks to a worthy skill that's becoming rarer and rarer. And these boats can get you to places the Evinrude and Mercury will never see.
Sometimes it's fun to compare the pros and cons of each model and I've wondered if I was ever in the market what features would I look for? Many years ago I went out west and fell in love with the first drift boat I saw. Now? The many features of each have me scratching my head. But I've no need to fret over it because there's no reason for me to have one. When it comes to fishing from a drift boat I get by with a little help from my friends.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Yeah, just bass fishin'

It was a steep ditch bank, all right, but that didn't keep Jack from backing his drift boat trailer down to the point of almost tipping. He tied a rope on the boat to slow it a bit when it came off but I'm not sure how effective it was. I still think it was the alder and willow brush at the bottom that did most of the braking. It's a good thing that brush was there because we still had a sixty foot drag to get the boat in the water, and if not for the brush on each side of the path that boat would have torpedoed itself down the bank and I wouldn't say the two of us could have stopped her. That was the start of a good day on the river.

Summer is slipping away quickly and though it's darn near impossible to get in too much fishing, it's just as hard to get enough. Two river trips were canceled to thunderstorms. We don't mind fishing in the rain, of course, and thunder is exciting, but high winds can ruin a trip and nobody stays on the water when there's lightning. Then there are the things that come up. Some are annoyances, some are necessary. That's life. All said, though, I'd be a poor one to complain for I've been out fishing more than a lot of folks.

Jack took the first shift rowing his boat while I tossed deer hair poppers at the bank. The smallmouth bass were active and I'd hooked seven or eight before I took the oars after thirty minutes. Most were on the small side but steady action was welcome – the last couple of floats consisted of lots of casting between fish. Captain Jack picked this stretch of water not only for it's population of bass and muskies but for the little pressure it received, likely because of the tough access. We caught bass throughout the very pleasant sunny warm day. Now and then we'd come to a section of river we took for muskie water and we'd grab the big rods and toss those chicken-size flies (Chicken-size flies – what a song title!) hoping for a monster, but to no avail.

We did see a muskie, however, when it followed and hit Jack's big streamer without hooking up. We'd drifted into a wide, deep run in front of a riverside cabin where two folks sat in lawn chairs watching. When the big fish splashed and missed I lowered the anchor so Jack and I could bombard it with our offerings and hope to coax a strike. The fellow on the bank apparently decided to show us flyfishers how it's done and walked to river's edge with a heavy casting outfit to throw a multi-hooked musky plug twice as far as we could cast and skated the thing across the surface. It made a pretty good impression of a young duckling running across the water, but he couldn't entice a strike either. Jack and I figured he knew that fish by name and probably had caught it before. We moved on.

Speaking of ducks and muskies. Scotty and I were on our favorite muskie river earlier this summer and I was happy to have landed one on a bushy new fly I'd tied. Then I was on the oars easing us downstream when we started a pair of Canada geese from the bank into the stream. Then went a single gosling about the size of a grown mallard. Only one. We watched for awhile as the gosling swam along the shoreline to catch it's parents. Scott took to casting again while I kept an eye on the geese. Suddenly the gosling disappeared in a huge splash and was gone! Just gone! Taken by a muskie? What else? We once watched a muskie chase a sucker under our boat and up to the bank before catching it and returning to swim under the boat with the sucker crossways in it's jaws, but I'd never seen anything like that goose disappearing. Wow.

No matter the species it can be tough to remain cool when you see the fish, or it's wake streaking at your fly. If it's a big muskie we all know to leave the rod tip down and strip set. Easier said than done. It takes some kind of nerves not to jerk the rod back and sometimes pull the fly right from the fishes mouth. I think I hook half of my fish when I'm not paying attention. I tend to get distracted by the scenery – a muskrat on the bank, an eagle high in a tree, a loon swimming in it's own reflection – and just the other day I was in Tony's boat looking the other way when the nicest bass of the day hit my popper and hooked itself. I love fishing topwater for the explosive strikes, but you won't see 'em if you're not watching. I can't tell you how many times drifting nymphs under an indicator for trout one of my partners yelled while I was gawking around, “Hey, you got one!”

It's been a rainy and cool couple of days. Pretty darn cool for August. The other morning I woke to 39 degrees. The maples are turning and a friend complained about switching the heat on in their house. We haven't turned the heat on, but I might light the stove if this keeps up. I'm not done fishing by a long shot, but this kind of weather has my dogs restless and I'm feeling the pull of bird season, myself. I've caught some good fish this summer, but I think I'm short in the brook trout department. I need to remedy that, and it would be good to use some fly-sized flies again.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

A Good Man

He sat his five year old son in the middle of the boat along with Queenie, a yellow Labrador, and poled them into the marsh. After pushing the boat into the bullrushes he stepped out in his waders, grabbed a little stool made from a 2x4 with a piece of plywood nailed on top and pushed it into the mud to sit on. He was only a few feet from the boat, watching out over the boy and the decoys and occasionally whispered, “...quiet now, here they come.” The boy watched fascinated when the ducks appeared overhead and his father rose with shotgun and dropped a duck or two into the decoys. “You got 'em, Dad!” The big splash of Queenie hitting the water was exciting and the boy stared wide-eyed as she returned with the prize. “She got it, Dad, Queenie's got it!” Laughter followed a shaking Labrador retriever, the boy held a duck with shivering hands while the man grasped the boys shoulder as if the boy had done the shooting.

Often cold and wet, sometimes bored, the boy couldn't get enough of hunting with his father. And his father seldom went without his son. As time went by he taught the boy to shoot, the dogs changed from a range of retrievers and spaniels, and they hunted the marshes and upland as partners – or so the man made it seem. And they fished the rivers and lakes, often with Mom and Sis. Unforgettable, it may have been for recreation, it may have been for fun, it may have been for spending time together. There's no way to measure the appreciation and lessons that were being instilled.

He came from a large family, that man, and hunting and fishing were important sources of food. Still, he took his game fairly, over a dog, wing shooting. That's style. And he probably had many opportunities to cheat – maybe a bird or trout over the limit – but that wouldn't occur to him. That's class.

He fished for trout, walleye, pike, and panfish to supply suppers, but dawn would often find him rowing along the lily pads tossing big Jitterbugs and Crazy Crawlers with an old South Bend casting reel. He loved the explosive surface strikes of bass and it was all sport for him. He taught the boy casting and how to thumb a spinning spool of braided line with just enough pressure to avoid a backlash, and that took patience, lots of it!

He hunted and fished when he could and worked hard making a home for his family. There wasn't much time for reading the outdoor magazines, but he was the kind of man those writers wrote about. He served in WWII but never bragged or boasted about himself, though he would sure talk about his family, his friends, and his ever present beloved canine companions.

 There's no stopping time, and he walked the woods with his spaniel until he just couldn't, anymore. So he stayed home caring for his lawn and flowers, and helping the neighbors. In his cupboard he had a bowl full of his neighbors house keys. They all trusted him to watch their homes when they were away. All of them. He and his springer spaniel Otis were known all over town. He was the kindest man I've ever met. Even in his last hours his eyes still twinkled and he managed a smile. A son's hero.

Born the first day of spring 90 years ago, Dad passed last Monday. God bless. Rest in peace.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Paddlin' & Portaging

There used to be a time when tripping into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area was all about the fishing. Walleyes and Lake Trout were the quarry and coolers of ice were the first of the gear loaded into #4 Duluth packs. The melting ice provided a little cold drinking water but the weight of the cooler was a necessary burden to carry fish fillets home. The canoes were heavy aluminum and tough enough to run up on the rocky landings at portages. Big Ed did the planning and everything was packed at his house, the headquarters for our expeditions. Brother Don manned the bow paddle of Ed's Alumacraft and always seemed kind of grouchy but catching and eating fried walleye would put a smile on his face. I was paired up with a variety of partners, depending on who was game and most often it was Holmsy in the front of my Grumman – a good partner always in good humor.
The destination was one of three lakes, each requiring multiple portages to get to. Holmsy and I, being in our 20s and half the age of Big Ed and Don, each carried two packs the first trip over the portage then went back for more. Looking at the amount of gear and packs stuffed into the canoes you might think our trips would be weeks long. Three or four days was a typical duration depending on when we'd had our fill of fresh walleye in camp with enough to bring limits home, along with who had to be back at work and when.

Times change, of course, and canoes got a whole lot lighter and way more expensive. Gear became high-tech and before long we were all saving up and buying new tents, bags, pads, stoves, and packs to put them in. I became fascinated with the idea of solo tripping in the wilderness area. Suddenly I was all about the paddling, traveling and exploring the lakes and portages of the BWCAW and Ontario's Quetico Provincial Park on my own. Spending weeks each year alone in canoe country was a passion and I thought nothing of getting dropped off in Atikoken, Ontario and paddling different routes south through 30 or more of the hundreds of lakes back to Ely, MN. Or putting in at a western entry and traveling the border route to see the various falls before circling north or south through small lakes and beaver dammed streams back to my starting point. It's beautiful country and the fishing was still there, obviously, and enjoying some fantastic angling along the way is another benefit of canoe travel. I can't remember all the camps I've pitched, or all the portages, but the experiences stand out.
I don't get there as much, anymore. It seems there's more people up there, now. And the reservation system took away the spur-of-the-moment capability of going whenever the urge hit. Not to mention the years collected and added to my age. But a trip was due and I was ready.


Camping along the border and lacking the extra permitting to enter Canada, I stayed on the U.S. side. Walleyes were there to catch, along with smallmouth bass and pike. Fly rod, canoe, and breeze can be a frustrating combo but when it's right it's... well, right. There was a moose followed without bothering with the camera, and pictographs. There was flat water and currents, wind and calm, sunshine and rain. Portages aren't getting easier, and this trip took nineteen of them and several camps before I pushed into the last landing, the takeout, tired and satisfied. Grateful for the chance –and thankfully able.