Sunday, April 15, 2018

Reading away Winter

Early last November we received enough snow to make it tough getting to deer camp. Despite what the calender said, it was the start of winter. Now, nearly six months later there is still knee-deep snow in the woods around my house. I generally enjoy winter and it's activities but c'mon, enough is enough. Cabin fever sets in after a while and by now it develops into a full blown case of the shack nasties. It's snowing again today, but much of the country is getting hit worse so maybe we are lucky. I have friends that pack it up for warmer climes to spend their winters. I recently talked to a few who returned from months laying around in sunny Costa Rica. They regret their early return but nobody believed winter would hang on this long. The rest of us just stayed here and toughed it out cutting firewood, reading, and listening to blues music.

I just finished re-reading Burton Spiller's Fishin' Around and I again admire the lengths folks went to satisfy the angling urge. Born in 1886, Burt lived in New Hampshire and when he wasn't busy raising prized gladiolus flowers and hunting grouse, he made excursions into Quebec and Nova Scotia fishing for brook trout, lake trout, and land-locked salmon. When he went fishing it wasn't the often “See ya later, Honey. I'll be back Sunday night.”

He tells of traveling rough roads taking seven hours to cover 50 miles getting to a rustic lakeside camp to meet his Montagnais guides, then loading gear into big canoes and paddling miles into the bush searching for sport. Nowadays those trips are made in floatplanes, flying out for the angling and back for dinner and soft mattress at the lodge each evening. But back then they thought nothing of carrying hundred pound sacks of flour, pails of lard, canned goods, slabs of bacon, coffee and tea over day-long portages and enjoying a smoke of black tobacco as a reward. Some dried moose meat was often tucked in but fish were a main staple. Their camps consisted of an oiled canvas tent, two Hudson Bay blankets per person, and beds made of spruce boughs. For them, a week in the bush was just getting started.

Burt didn't write about how to catch fish. Or about rated rods and lines. He mentions his rod only as a four ounce bamboo, and his line was greased silk. He did have a fly he liked but doesn't say much about it. His tales are about the life: the hazards and skills of poling a canoe up through rapids, the earned ache of muscles after a mile portage on a faint trail, the futile effort to keep pace with the canoe-laden guide, the long battle against a big salmon only to lose it at the net, the sizzle of trout in a cast iron skillet. He writes about the wildlife, the people, and the country along the way. The pencil illustrations by Milton Weiler are first rate.

I don't know much about literature but I know I like this, and while reading I couldn't help the desire to get out there. I can't match Burton's trips, or ever come close, but I did plan a date in the Boundary Waters Wilderness for June.

Saturday, March 10, 2018


There's been some camping talk going around lately, and with three feet of snow still on the ground I've been recalling some of my own trips.

Winter camp. I won't say it's completely out of my system – I've enjoyed some interesting adventure out there, but I'm glad I did it then because I don't know it's something I'd start doing now. Some has been a means to an end, a way to reach backcountry deer hunting or remote ice fishing that few others would bother to reach, but other winter camps were strictly just for the “doing it.”

A ticking woodstove in a canvas wall tent with companions seems luxurious where a solo cold camp might deem successful by not freezing to death. Either way, snug in a deep sleeping bag listening to howling wolves through thin tent walls on a still winter night is something you won't forget.


Getting there usually involves hiking or skiing decent trails or crossing a frozen lake or two but it once took two days to find a destination lake that I thought I'd reach in hours. Heavy snow surprised me – my snowshoes sunk deep with each step and the sled I pulled became heavier each mile. I lost the trail several times in the thick forest and had to “dead reckon” or backtrack. I finally got there, exhausted, but made a comfortable camp, ate well, slept well in a plush bag, and had an easy return on my broken trail. It took so long to get there I only had a little time for fishing, but I did see a moose on the way out. All for the sake of winter camping.


Yes, I'm looking for Spring!

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Spinnin', stackin', and packin'

It's mid-winter, just above zero with a biting wind. Yesterday's snowfall is lifted and swirling past the windows and drifting over the walkway. Even the dogs are happy inside. And my mind is in another place.
Although months away, I'm thinking about the fishing season. Capt. Jack has been sending me brag photos of the Smallmouth Slider fly he ties and the rest of the guys are making plans for a multi-day bass fishing excursion. I've been tying deer hair.

I watched a Kelly Galloup video where he explained that most deer hair is junk and you should go through and inspect it before you buy it. I was reminded of the backwoods cafe owner's response when asked if the eggs were from free-range chickens? “They come on a truck!” My deer hair comes mail order so I make the best of it. He's right, however, that really good deer hair isn't easy to find. Some is too soft, or brittle, or short, etc. Still, like I said, I gotta' do the best I can with what I've got. Like my big friend Chuck often says, “ya pays yer money and takes yer chances.” Kelly also said we should buy and try an assortment of fly lines and use the one that best suits our rod. I can't do that, either.

I like deer hair bass flies and tying them. I guess I like making a mess. Spinning, stacking, and packing – it takes forever even when it goes well. If you tie bass bugs you know what it's like to have a clump of hair explode in your hand when the thread touches it. You know what it's like to scrape glued hair off your fingertips. You know what it's like to stab yourself with the hook pulling back applied hair to make room for more. Finally, when all is said and done, you know the feeling looking at the finished product – while dropped, combed, broken, and trimmed deer hair is piled at the base of your vise, in your lap, the around your ankles – of having a fly the bass just can't resist. Why is that? Well, to be honest it's 'cause those bass will hit damn near anything.

So I tied up some deer hair poppers. Just for kicks and to try something different I put a foam face on them. You can do that with bass flies, it's not like we're trying to match a hatch or anything. Sure, some bass flies might resemble a bait fish, sculpin, or a frog, but lots of times they're just a comedy of feathers and hair that are exciting to fish. So I added the foam and I got to thinking, hey, this might work. A little extra buoyancy won't hurt a thing, especially on faster moving rivers. I'll have to wait for open water to try them but I have to believe they'll make a fine plopping popper. Our buddy Scott already gave these flies a name, we'll call 'em Diggs for short, but the rest of the story is kind of long so I'll save it.

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.