Thursday, January 4, 2018

Rabbit stew with a .22?

Back in the day, on cold winter nights Dad would set up his homemade steel bullet trap in the basement and we'd take turns shooting paper targets with Grampa's old break action .22 rifle. The 22 Shorts were low velocity and low noise and made it feasible for our little indoor rifle range. That old Stevens Marksman is still fun to shoot and Gramps' homemade brass sight makes it sort of personal for me.

Demonstrating good sense with firearms came allowance to roam the hardwoods for gray squirrels and rabbits and many the autumn day spent with the company of a little .22 rifle. Mother could have written a best selling wild game cook book and to this day I wonder if those cringing at the idea know what they're missing. No, I don't suppose they do.

Enter the winter woods to see what's there. Bring the rifle just in case. It feels good in hand and seems more purposeful than a walking stick. There are deer tracks and trails everywhere. Keep an eye for shed antlers. Prowling fox and bobcats leave sign, and the four-inch wolf prints can't be ignored. A pileated woodpecker is working a tree. It bothers to see so little grouse sign this year. Fisher and marten seem missing, too. There are ermine and rabbits tracks, though. Snowshoe hare actually, and you'll shoot one if you get the chance. It's cold, well below zero and a supper of wild game would set well.

Dad's Winchester is my favorite 22. It's older than I am and lends a comforting heft in hand. Gun makers used plenty of good steel then, and dense wooden stocks. It's not a featherweight, nor is it heavy, just solid. It hits where aimed and makes good company on a solitary winter hike. It's said the USA is a nation of riflemen. Well, OK.

No rabbits were taken this time. The walking stick would have been useful. But it's good to have a rifle, you know, just in case.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

... and came the cold.

It's easy to feel inspired splitting wood when it's 25 below zero like it was this morning. I'd dropped a couple of trees out back just before Christmas and had them bucked up into firewood size blocks, ready to split. Christmas eve was a day for skiing before the real cold came, and fun it was. Christmas day was our first sub-zero day of the winter at 18 below and a day to spend indoors with family and food. This morning our daughter headed home to the big city and the post-Christmas calm settled in. A hungry wood stove has been cause for frequent trips to the wood shed, and a reminder to keep busy making next season's firewood. When it's too cold to do much else outdoors, chopping wood seems about right.

I was talking to some friends a few nights ago, over some good craft beer, about aging and eating. It was agreed that some aches and pains come along with the years and carrying around an accumulation of extra butter doesn't help things. A theory was presented: metabolism slows as we grow older because in a natural world where man had to hunt, gather, and grow his own food he naturally slowed down and became less efficient with age. Thus, as his ability to acquire sustenance decreased, so too did his need for it. Now days, of course, french fries and cheeseburgers are pretty easy to come by even for the slowest and weakest of us, so resistance – call it willpower – is our only hope of fitting into our waders next trout season. I'll admit willpower has been at a low point for me this holiday season, and the theory doesn't address the fact that back in that natural world of hunter-gatherer the life expectancy was what, 30?
By the time I had a few piles of wood split up I couldn't feel my fingers anymore and retreated for the house. After my hands thawed I tied up a couple of bobbing baitfish flies for springtime panfish (the bass and walleyes like 'em, too) and watched a video about fly fishing pike in Canada. Neat stuff. Then lunch.

 Leftover Christmas goodies – tasty ham, tangy sausage, sharp cheddar and smoked Gouda. PJ brought out some salty chips. And hearty bread. And wine. There must be some vegetables around here somewhere! In a defensive move to distance myself from food I bundled up and was soon out splitting wood again.

I don't put much stock in New Year's resolutions. Maybe I should.

Monday, December 11, 2017

tis the season

There's a little glass dish on my desk with a few egg flies in it. I tied them the other evening when I was thinking about steelhead fishing. They say egg flies are about the easiest pattern to tie and I won't argue, but mine are the worst I've seen. I don't get it, I know they're supposed to be round but half the time mine have a noticeable belt around the middle from the tying thread. Or I don't get the hook covered on the bottom side. I do have better luck with McFlyFoam, but I have several bags of yarn that I don't want to waste. I'm not the greatest fly tier, for sure, but I do manage some pretty decent flies for trout to muskies. These eggs have me be-jiggered.

I didn't put my fly rods away until deer season was over, and I was hesitant then. We had a good blanket of snow on the ground, the lakes were freezing over, and Ole Man Winter wasn't waiting until December. So the rods took their place in the can next to my desk and the reels, fly boxes, and other accoutrement found the bin marked “fly fishing” on the basement shelf. I recalled the fishing that took place throughout the year and couldn't help thinking there might have been more. I just don't want to see another year end, I suppose.
Sometimes I get a shudder pondering how many seasons and trips I have left in me. I'm not a doom and gloom sort of guy, but I've been around long enough to know that the number of years ahead are less than the number behind. I know I'm living a gift and hope I'm doing it well, but there are times I wonder.
Most of my steelhead have come on bugs; prince nymphs and pheasant tails with added rubber legs or something similar. Many of our steelies are taken on yarn egg patterns but I just haven't fished them much. Last fall I'd hooked two steelhead on my PT and was feeling pretty good standing in that north shore river. I moved on when an old-timer stepped into the river on the other side and after he caught fish after fish from the same run I'd just fished my partner walked down and asked what he was using. Yarn. Well, I'm gonna give it an honest try if I ever get one that looks right. The season is about four months off, so I've got some time to practice and plenty of material.

And it's Christmas time. Some love it and others don't. Some thrive on it and others hope to survive it. Christmas is getting easier as I get older. Gone are the hectic shopping trips between work schedules and 300 mile drives to get where we had to be. It doesn't last long, the music is fine and the decorations are up. Appreciate the reason for the season and each morning, before dawn, I sip coffee next to our lighted tree and listen to the silence. I hope it's as good for you, and wherever it finds you, Happy Holidays!

Friday, November 24, 2017

Never fired a shot.

A week before deer season I went to the range to sight in my rifle. I like the range, they have all the equipment and I know many of the guys there. Every year I sit at their bench-rest and fire a couple of rounds at 100 yards while one of the members watches through his spotting scope. I never adjust my rifle scope much 'cause it doesn't change much from year to year. But it's comforting to know the rifle will shoot where you aim it. And there's always time for some stories in the comfortable club house. After that the only thing left is to find the deer. 

It's surprising how the slightest hint of a breeze can rattle the loose bark on a birch tree and sound just like a deer's footsteps. That is, until you actually hear a deer. There was a noise muffling carpet of snow when deer season opened, which could be good or bad, depending on your point of view but if it weren't for the chickadees and ravens sounding off I might have thought I was losing my hearing.The squirrels were running around but other than their chattering they made no noise on the snow.

The third day of the season I explored a little cutting my setter, Gabby, and I found in October. We'd spotted some buck sign then, and with the snow I found many places where deer entered the cut to feed. Best of all, there was no sign of other hunters near, and it was close to home. The fourth morning of deer season I carried a ladder stand in and propped it against a popple. While I was setting it up a deer snorted behind me and I turned to see a disappearing tail. Buck or doe I can't say, but it was encouraging.

Over the next days I saw plenty of does and fawns, and a couple of small bucks, but not a buck I wanted to shoot. I caught sight of one small spike buck coming slowly, brousing along the way, but he was so quiet I couldn't hear his footfall until he was 10 yards away. I knew then I would have to see them long before I'd hear them. I let him go to grow up some.

Each night at home I'd renew my enthusiasm reading tales of big-antlered bucks written by well-known writers from all over the country. It would be all or nothing for me.

I gave up the stand one morning and eased my way around the outside of the cutting. I was crossing a swampy little opening stepping in water under the snow when I was busted by a doe. We were eye to eye maybe 40 yards apart. Then she turned and in two or three jumps was gone. What really got me was the second deer behind her that jumped after her. This is thick country of jack pine and balsams, alders, aspen, maple, and birch. If you can see the antlers of a disappearing buck in these woods it's probably a good one. I followed him the rest of that day and picked up the track the next day. I never found where he bedded or learned much else about him, though the tracks of all sorts of critters from weasels to wolves were interesting to come across. I never saw the buck again and when his track led into the big swamp bordering the lake I just wasn't willing to follow any longer. I'll look for him next year.

As I write this I'm sitting inside munching leftover turkey – no venison for me this year, and I'm watching the steady rain coming down. It won't be enough to melt the snow but it's enough to keep me indoors. Weird weather. Fly fishing is done, at least locally. Some folks are ice-fishing already, though today could change that. Gabby is ready for some more bird hunting and I am, too. Maybe tomorrow.

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. It 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!