Monday, December 28, 2009

Yes, it's winter...

There’s enough snow now to make a difference. It’s truly winter, now. It snowed Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, the day after and was still snowing lightly today. For about a week now I’ve been doing little but lying around, visiting folks and family and eating and eating all sorts of holiday goodies. The holiday festivities have sort of calmed by now and when I woke this morning and saw that snow drifting down I just had to get outside for some activity.

I figured I could get out for a hike before breakfast while everyone was still asleep but when I stepped into my snowshoes I saw the rawhide was broken on one of the shoes right where the binding attached. Damn! Not ready to give up, though, I went back inside to dig through the pile of snowshoes for another that would suffice. I’m not sure why I’ve kept those old shoes, all made of wood and rawhide, especially the ones with broken frames, but I was happy to find one Ojibwa style that was in good shape and had a binding on it. So I would have my hike after all, with an Ojibwa snowshoe on my left foot and an Alaskan on my right.

My planned route had two purposes; I would get some much needed exercise, and I would get a start at tramping down a ski trail. The scenery and possible wildlife sightings were important bonuses. Jack the setter was eager for the chance so he came along. It only took minutes after entering the woods to feel enveloped in the landscape. Fresh snow clung to every stem of the hazel brush, every limb of the aspen, and every bough of the balsam. The snowshoes pushed muffled into the snow and even Jack busting ahead coursed forward in silence.

I can’t believe there was a better thing to do this morning. Here and there I crossed a deer track, some likely moved by Jack. My route was mostly north over and down the first hill that always is tricky when skied. It’s surprising how fast the brush grows to choke a trail, and some trees where down since the last time I followed this route. I found a new way across a thick creek bottom and when I climbed out the other side I heard a grouse flush. A few yards later I found a snow roost in a bit of a clearing. I might have thought there wasn’t enough snow for the grouse to shelter in, but I learned otherwise this morning. I’m always on the lookout for predator tracks, but the fresh layer of snow revealed nothing of that yet. However, in a day or so I’ll find fox and coyote tracks, fisher and marten, and maybe some wolf tracks.

I stopped on the last high ridge before the country descends into the swampy bottomland south of Big Rice Lake. On many days the lake is visible three quarters of a mile away, but today the light snow obscured the view. On the way back to the house I widened the trail on the hills hopefully to make for easier skiing. Halfway home I saw a grouse had walked out from under thick balsams and into my own tracks, but I never saw or heard the bird. Home and coffee, the usual morning bustle and readying JP for her trip back to school, the early hours were mine – a fine start to the day, and I guess it’s time to learn to fix snowshoes.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

coming winter...

Autumn is finally giving way, surrendering to the icy grip of Winter. There are several inches of snow on the ground and today’s temp might have reached 20 degrees. I spent several hours hiking in the woods today looking at tracks, traps, trees, and the overall beauty of the new winter landscape. My favorite boots provided sure-footedness and comfort as long as I kept moving but it’s close to time to break out some heavier insulated footwear. I’m kind of old-school as far as trapping goes. I know the fastest way to take most furbearers is from the truck, running and gunning and putting lots of miles and plenty of steel on the ground. I’ve done it and reaped the benefits. You pull up to a place, jump out and grab a pail with trap and bait and run in and make the set. Then back to the truck and off to the next place. But I know a couple of places where I can swing my packbasket on and spent the best part of the day in the forest and never see another soul. I don’t cover as much ground but I like feeling my load get lighter with every trap I set. And it’s even more satisfying when checking the line and the pack gets heavier with fur as I make my rounds. It doesn’t always happen like that, but it’s neat when it does.

I like going on foot. I’ve spent some time on different machines traveling backwoods trails and roads, and probably will some more, but to my way of thinking it’s difficult to beat a non-motorized trek to really enjoy the experience I seek. Some think of horse-power, tires, and track length. I think about snowshoes, skis, and boots. I have to wonder if I hunt because I enjoy seeking the quarry or just hiking around the woods. I spent just about every day of October following bird dogs searching grouse and woodcock. I walked off nearly ten pounds despite the hunter’s feasts I took pleasure in. That’s not a bad thing.

Deer season came on warm and pleasant, at least for most of us. Sure, the die-hards worried over tracking snow and cooling their game, but I think whenever we get agreeable weather in November we should take advantage of it. I wore a pack and carried a map and compass because it seemed I felt more like exploring new ground than killing a deer. Twice I paddled my canoe to new country I’ve never hunted before. There’re not many seasons that allow canoeing during deer season around here. I rambled around the woods far from my usual haunts and discovered lakes, ponds, rocky outcrops and ridges I’ve never seen before. Some of them I may find again, others maybe not. I saw deer. Not many, but enough. I have to believe I hunt not so much to take game as to enjoy the places it takes me. I had some fine days overlooking wooded valleys I’ve never been to and enjoying lunches sitting on sun-warmed rocks. There’s real pleasure to be had in good outdoor gear and having the confidence in it to really get out there.

When deer season was over there was yet no snow so I loaded dogs in the truck and shells in the gun and hunted grouse some more. The later season birds sat tight and offered some pretty good shooting, surprisingly, after eluding hunters and critters for two months. And it’s not over yet. As Christmas approaches there are only those few inches of snow on the ground. I found plenty of grouse tracks this morning and I believe I know a couple of setters who would love a romp in the snow.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Cool Stuff...

All outdoor folks have some cool stuff that holds some kind of meaning to them. These things are likely not all that valuable, at least in terms of dollars and cents, but might offer a worth that money can’t measure up to. Over the years people are bound to hang on to some tangible bit of wood, metal, material or whatever that they’ve used or collected for some obscure reasons known only to themselves. I know a man who doesn’t hunt anymore but keeps an old Faulk’s duck call on his end table. The call is split up the side and doesn’t work anymore and he’s lucky to have a wife who understands. At first glance most folks would wonder why it hadn’t found the trashcan long ago. The old guy hardly ever notices it himself, but when he does it means something.

I have an old military issue mirror that was my Grandfather’s. He gave it to my Dad and he passed it on to me. I’ve used it camping in the BWCA and elsewhere when I or someone with me thought a mirror would be useful. It’s made from a rectangle of very high quality stainless steel and is of a size that just covers my hand. There is a hole punched in one end for hanging and is kept in its own canvas case. I wonder if such quality steel is available anymore – this piece of steel reflects true distortion-free images from either side. I can picture Gramps using it to shave from tent or trench, maintaining military discipline, before grabbing his Springfield for battle in Europe.

Years ago there was a fellow named Charlie S. who handmade a few dog bells for his setters to wear on their collars when he hunted grouse with them. I’ve seen a lot of bells in my time but his were unique in sound and style. I know of two men Charlie gave one of his bells to. I am one of them. My setter, Molly, was wearing it when she won the Minnesota Grouse Dog Championship. I’ve had some good dogs since, but none that have lived up to wearing her bell.

The Buck Folding Hunter is probably the best known Buck Knife ever made. When they first came out I wanted one badly, but could never seem to find the money to purchase one. When my sister presented me one for Christmas I didn’t know what to say. Susan was just a teen with a part-time job and to buy me such a gift was a real sacrifice for her. I was thankful, sure, but she deserved far more than she ever got from me. I cut my initials into it and carried that knife on my belt daily for years before finally reserving it for hunting only. Every deer I’ve ever killed or helped others with has been dressed, skinned, and cut with that old Buck Knife. I’ll never use another for deer hunting. Shortly after she gave me that knife, my sister died in a vehicle accident. Every year I handle that knife; open and close it; pull it over the whetstone; pass it from hand to hand, I wonder what kind of woman Susan would have become. And I treasure that knife.

Monday, November 2, 2009

It's about over...

I was in the fleet store this evening looking at deer hunting gear and gadgets when I ran into an old friend doing the same. He told me he’d just went back to work after taking the most of October off for hunting and fishing. He couldn’t believe how quickly that time passed. I know the feeling.

I spent most of October hunting, also, and though it was a tough month weather-wise, I hated to see it end. I can’t remember such a wet bird hunting season. I know it’s not over yet, and there may be good grouse hunting in Nov, and December, but it’s a chancy bet with the snow that will likely be here. As a matter of fact I often find grouse bunched up near clear cuts late in the season and the shooting can be awesome. But it’s not the kind of day-in, day-out hunting I enjoy when the leaves are turning.

I hunted a lot in raingear this year. It wasn’t easy to find a dry log to sit on and enjoy a sandwich while my setter lay in dry leaves next to me hoping for a bite. My evening routine consisted of hanging clothes to dry, sticking boots on the boot dryer, break down the shotgun for an oily rag, supper, drink, bed.

My hunting was interrupted only by the field trials I had been asked to judge. During them I connected with long time friends, saw some great dogs work many grouse and woodcock, and had a fine time in general. Hunting or trialing, I walked hours a day, and I ate bigger meals than usual but lost nearly ten pounds in October. It was nice to do a little duck hunting when I could watch the morning break sitting in a boat or canoe. I might be in better shape than I was the first of the month, I know my dogs are, but after weeks of following bird dogs through tight and heavy cover, I feel kind of worn out. But not wore enough not to do more if the opportunity presents itself.

On our last hunt in October I was treated to maybe the prettiest grouse find I’ve ever seen. My setter Ty hunted forward on the edge of a cutting, when his bell fell silent. I climbed out of a draw to come into a little meadow where I saw Ty pointing on the other side just at woods edge. He was facing right and stood tall and still, poker straight tail at twelve o’clock. I approached in the wide open of the meadow when three grouse exploded simultaneously in front of the dog. Two went for the woods and the third came across the meadow. You seldom get offered shots like that and I’ll remember that scene for a long time.

Saturday morning I’ll watch night turn to day in a quiet deerstand. A few days of that peaceful pursuit will be welcome. But it won’t take long before I’ll miss the action and sound of dog bells, fast flushing birds, and smooth swinging shotguns. The best of bird season is coming to an end. It felt like summer when it started, and it’ll be winter when it’s finally over. It will be too soon for me.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

In the Rain

Many years ago a fellow gave me a hot tip about a cover where there were lots of grouse and woodcock. He freely gave me directions and carried on about the high numbers of birds that I was starting to think he was leading me on a wild goose chase. There are those that would do such a thing, after all, and I can’t say I’d be completely above it myself.

But anyway, I took him at his word and opening day had me arriving at said cover 30 minutes before sunrise after a forty-mile drive in steady rainfall. I guess I wanted to beat anyone else to the place, but I worried needlessly – it wasn’t a fit day to be outdoors for anything, much less busting early season foliage behind a bird dog. But I was there with two male setters that were as eager as I to get the season started, and when the day turned from dark to gray enough to pick out a dim trail into the cover I put a bell on Birchwood Cully’s collar and followed him into the woods with my shotgun in hand.

In those days I shot a little short-barreled 20 gauge double that I wasn’t very good with, and my pockets were filled with shells. The fact that the little gun killed many birds in my hands is more a testament to the good dogs I followed and the many, many grouse and woodcock they found for me. Years later when I tried a gun that fit me better, that little 20 was seldom used.

The rain never let up the entire time we were hunting. If there’s ever been a test for rain gear it’s pushing through wet brush. But the guy steered me right and the place was nearly bursting with grouse, and when I wasn’t poking a shot towards a grouse I was likely swinging at a woodcock. It seemed like Cully was pointing every minute or so. My rain suit failed miserably and I couldn’t have been wetter had I fallen in a lake. But I finally gathered Cully up and trudged out to the truck with a limit of woodcock (the limit was five woodcock in those days) and one short on grouse. I’m sure I could have taken the last grouse but I wanted to give my other dog, Elvis, a chance, too.

The rain was getting to me and I wanted to be done, but Elvis deserved a chance so we went down the track a little ways and I turned him loose. He darted through a strip of old balsams and jammed into a point thirty yards off the trail. Elvis was nearly all white in color and he really stood out against the shining wet still green cover in the falling rain. I pushed my soggy self over to him and saw two grouse blast out from under a young sheltering balsam tree. Somehow my first shot connected and our day was done! Elvis made the retrieve and while I was trying to stuff it into my waterlogged canvas vest he took off to hunt some more. I’d had enough and tried to get him back but he was pointing again before I knew it. I couldn’t shoot anymore birds but I flushed the grouse for him and he took off with a chase. Before I could get him back to the truck he’d pointed six more grouse!

Soaking wet and happy, I stopped at a friend’s house on the way back to the highway. It was 10:30 in the morning and I had taken limits of grouse and woodcock fairly, over pointing dogs. Quite an opening day.

Yesterday I had the day to hunt. It was raining, though not as hard as the day I just described. I’m not as enthusiastic about hunting in the rain as I once was, but again, it wasn’t coming down that hard. I took turns with Ty and Jack in different covers and we hunted most of the day. Each setter pointed grouse regularly. That doesn’t mean I get shots at them all, or that I hit everything I try for, but it’s great to have some action. I was shooting light loads in a very old 12-gauge double that was built sometime around the end of WWII. I don’t know the history of the gun but it’s fun to think about all the grouse and pheasants and rabbits and ducks, and maybe even deer the old gun has taken. It’s kind of a beater, now -- some rain and tough cover can’t hurt it anymore, and it’s fun to carry and is still deadly.

Some of me was still dry when the hunt was over. My chaps turned most of the water from my legs for half the day, rain found it’s way inside my jacket in a few places, and my heavy old hat kept most of it out of my eyes and off my neck. We found many grouse but only one woodcock. I’m still thinking about a missed grouse that offered a pretty easy straightaway shot and would have ended the day sooner. And yes, I missed quite a few shots yesterday, but when it works there’s nothing like knocking a fast flying grouse from the air in tight cover. And I made some that were awesome. I’m grateful for every day I have, and especially days like yesterday.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Early Season

It would have been a fine morning to be on the lake fishing. It was still and sunny; lower 50 degrees with the promise of a warm day ahead. Or perhaps an off-road ride on the mountain bike over ski trails devoid of deer flies and mosquitoes in the morning chill. There’s even a small pile of birch outside my woodshed that would find benefit being split and stacked. But grouse season opened and I was thinking of little else.

My setters have been antsy and anxious for the last week or so. Ty can tell what time of year it is without a calendar and I think Jack gets his info from Ty. At eight years old Ty isn’t as spry as he used to be, but when I came from the house with my bird hunting vest, old orange-topped McAlister hat and a gun in my hand he was into the back of the truck before I could drop the tailgate! We’d been finding birds regularly during summer recon outings and I believe he was as expectant as I was.

Early season grouse hunting. The papers, magazines, and radio have been telling anyone and everyone that this is the year to be hunting in Minnesota. Still, they usually advise waiting until things cool off a bit and some of the leaves turn color and fall from the branches. That’s good advice, but when you spend as much of your life as I do watching, worrying, listening, and searching for grouse there is no waiting when the season opens. I know that the heat and the bugs will drive us from the woods in short order, so there’s no need to carry lunch – it’s hit the covers early, carry water for the dogs and come out sweating and hopefully smiling.

We were in a favorite cover for five minutes when Ty pointed the first grouse of the season. I found him at the bottom of an aspen hill along a run of alders, a good looking spot for birds. He was facing me when I saw him which is always a good situation. The grouse was pinned between us and it exploded up and back over Ty, turning left and disappearing at my hasty shot. I caught a glimpse of it as it topped the trees and continued on, unhurt. It’s no matter that I missed that shot; I knew I was exactly where I was supposed to be. And I was smiling.

I suppose the weekend highlight was when I turned Ty loose the second morning and he ran about 30 feet from the truck and locked on point. I didn’t even have my gun out yet. I quickly dropped a couple of shells in the chambers and marched to him. A brood of young grouse lifted before him and about six birds went in all directions. One of the luckless ones tried flying through a tiny opening and my barrels caught up and it fell in a heap.
Ty remained steady to shot (I still wonder the wisdom of that) and when I sent him for the retrieve he overshot the area and ran on to point another one. I was able to kill this one going away and after Ty’s quick retrieve we went back to find the first. All the while poor Jack witnessed the episode from the truck and he yowled his angst at missing out on the action. Ty and I were never more than 50 yards from the truck. I believe we could have hounded the rest of the birds and perhaps decimated the brood but I chose against it so after some photos we left to hunt a different cover.

I hunted Ty and Jack each morning of the weekend. The dogs had to be watched closely for heat related troubles and I offered water often from the bottle in my vest. Even when the temps read fairly cool, it seemed stifling in the woods and when I stopped walking my shooting glasses would fog and sweat would run down into my eyes. Each setter pointed early season grouse and I had shots at some. My old shotgun was at home in my hands, my boots comfortable, and my hunting hat felt just right. It’s not the best hunting just yet, it’s too early. But the Red Gods were kind and I’m thankful for the hunt and last evenings grouse dinner.

Friday, August 14, 2009

It's not so much the living... as the life.

For more years than I care to say, each spring I’ve looked forward to getting the dogs out for early season workouts. It’s no secret that October is my favorite month of the year, so it only makes sense that April would come in second for it is the month that closest duplicates the best of Autumn. But when it comes to working bird dogs, you have to get out as soon as you can because in the middle of April it becomes unlawful to run dogs in bird nesting cover, which could mean just about anywhere. Clearcuts, fields, and some meadows are OK, and I rely on these for spring training when I plant birds for the dogs to find, but before I go to this artificial type setup I try to get the dogs in as many wild birds as I can. That means keeping a close eye on the receding snowline and hitting the south slopes as soon as some of the snow has melted away. I’ve been known to load dogs and sleeping bag in the truck and drive south until there was no snow to work the dogs. Sometimes that has taken me nearly to Iowa before I found enough bare ground to turn them loose on. During lean snow years I’ve actually went north and set up chilly March tent camps to run dogs on native grouse when the going was good.

I suppose I don’t really have to hit it so hard anymore, at least as long as I’m not currently running dogs in field trials. Old Ty is as trained as he’s ever going to be and is much better at his job than I am at mine, and even though Jack is always goofing around and could always find benefit in a tune up, I guess it’s really not all that important this early in the year. But I truly love seeing a dog pointing grouse and after a long winter and half a lifetime messing with bird dogs, man, I’d sure be lost not doing it. Someday I won’t be able and, hell… I don’t even want to think about that.

I tried full-time dog training for a while, and the lifestyle out on the summer prairies and spring and fall woods was indescribable, but I lacked business savvy and had a young family to support so a steady job with benefits won out over chasing dogs and seasons all over the country. Looking back I have to wonder, but that water flowed under the bridge long ago.

There was a time on the grouse and woodcock field trial circuit when the dogs I ran won a lot more than not, and I got to know some of the best dog handlers in the country and they got to know me. Those friendships endure and though I seldom enter dogs as a handler, it’s a rare year when I don’t accept a field trial judging assignment or two. I’ve got to tell you, I’ve seen some fine, fine dogs.

A lot of good dogs have passed through my own kennels as well, along with some others that, well… I don’t work so hard at remembering. While I haven’t time to work more than a few dogs, it seems every summer I end up with one or two from other folks who must have even less time than I do. Through it all I’ve built some valued experience with quite a few different hunting breeds. Most of the time I’ve spent with field bred English setters and pointers and though there are some pretty accurate generalities you can say about the breeds; if anything, I’ve learned that each dog is an individual regardless of breed.

I’ve also worked with a couple of German shorthairs, a couple of Brittanys, a Gordon setter, some labs and springers, and there’s even been one or two of questionable breeding in my kennels. Right now I have made the acquaintance of a German wirehaired pointer and after only a couple of days I have to admit I’m kind of taken by this dog. She has an engaging personality that’s hard to ignore, seems eager to please and likes to be around me. She runs hard when she gets the chance but about the time a setter would be topping the hill she’ll turn back and check on me. The weather is pretty warm right now so all our workouts are limited, but it’s a good time for some yard work and this wirehair is catching on fast. Of course, she has one season behind her with an owner that knows what he’s doing so that helps. I’m happy to have her here for now and am eager to see what kind of bird dog she’ll develop into by hunting season.

All this dog stuff keeps me from fishing as much as I’d like, and some of the home projects that never seem to get started; but I’ve seen some neat country and interesting sights following bird dogs that I might have otherwise missed. And folks call me from all over the country to ask how the grouse numbers are. I never tell ‘em, of course, but they know that I know.

Sunday, April 19, 2009


After a long winter I’m as happy as anyone to see and hear the signs of spring. Though I can still see plenty of snow in the yard when I look out the window, at least it has melted away from the house and I can walk across the yard without needing to wear boots.

Songbirds are busy in their mating seasons and are singing in the mornings before light and stop only when it gets dark. Snipe are flying throughout the day and their woo-woo-wooing is nearly constant. Geese are flying steady and mallards and mergansers are on every open water. In the last few days I’ve heard timber wolves howling in the early mornings before sunup but I don’t know the reason. Are they celebrating spring? Or announcing the birth of a litter? Perhaps it’s the male lamenting an unsuccessful hunt knowing there’s a grumpy bitch wolf with a hungry litter back at the den.

April is the month most resembling October, so it’s only natural to get into the woods and see how things survived over the winter. It’s a good time to check out prospective new hunting covers, stretch winter weary bones on myself and the dogs, find some deer sheds, and see how the birds are doing. And seeing the dogs handle grouse that have survived the winter is a treat, because after months of eluding the cold and about every predator from weasels to wolves, these can be some of the toughest birds to get pointed.

What we bird hunters really look forward to this time of year is hearing ruffed grouse drumming. Through the winter I’d seen plenty of sign and quite a few birds themselves, and I’ve been finding grouse with the dogs on our spring outings and seeing birds on the roads. Going into the breeding season with good numbers of grouse is a good omen and the fodder of happy and encouraging conversations for us grouse hunters. If we’re not talking shotguns, gear, or dogs, we’re mulling over the general health and population of our favorite game bird.

I’ve been lucky enough to have seen a number of drummers doing their thing over the years and last spring I watched one jump on his log and beat his wings within a few feet of the road like he was showing off for me. Perhaps the most memorable was the Quetico grouse that drummed from a big rock at waters edge as I paddled by.

Last week I was working along the Embarrass River when I heard the first drummer of the year. I listened for a bit trying to pinpoint its direction in the rolling country and heard another drumming from a different bearing. Over the next couple of hours I heard them intermittently and what a pleasant sound it was. Yesterday morning I started hearing one here at home and am happy to report he continues through today and I expect to hear drumming daily throughout the next couple of weeks, at least.

Woodcock go hand in hand with grouse, of course, and the little birds mating ritual is another event I look for, but haven’t yet heard or seen any this spring, despite a long evening walk into the night along known woodcock haunts. This morning I took the dogs up the forest road that is just now passable to my old and favored training grounds. There’s a spit of alders surrounded by an island of popple that is often good for finding a woodcock or two, but nothing today. I know others around the country who have been finding woodcock for weeks, now, but I’ve talked to no one locally who’s seen any. I’m kind of worried about the little birds. It seems there are fewer and fewer woodcock each year so I hope this seemingly late return isn’t an indication of poor times ahead for timberdoodle.

I’m on a mission now to see some woodcock on their singing grounds and will spend some of the next evenings on the search.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Winter thoughts of fly fishing.

It’s mid February, about the time of winter when I’m getting kind of bored with the snow and cold and my thoughts drift toward spring and fly-fishing. It’s now when I get out the old hook vise and start tying a few of my favorite flies for the coming fishing season. I was born and raised near the finest spring creeks and trout streams in Minnesota and spent countless hours in those cold waters catching rainbows, browns, and brook trout, and I miss it dearly. Many were the nights spent in bad tents listening to great horned owls through the evenings and wild turkeys gobbling at dawn. A favored camp was right next to a crystal clear pool that I’d cast ragged hare’s ear nymphs and Adams dry flies to. I’ll never forget the 16 inch rainbow (huge for that water) that rose from the depths, opened its white mouth and sucked in my offering. In those days I wasn’t all that excited about fishing with a fly rod and saved my trapping and odd job money to buy an ultra-light spinning outfit like my fishing partner used. I finally did purchase that rod and reel and soon learned how deadly #0 Mepps spinners were to the local trout population. But before that I was forced to rely on the old bamboo fly rod my grandpa used to use. It was equipped with a wind-up Martin automatic reel that I got a kick out of but I never appreciated neither the rod nor the skills I learned with it until much later in life ... if I only had that rod now.

Once I learned how to cast the double tapered line I could pretty well keep up to the spin fishers by tossing muddler minnows and wooly buggers into the same riffles and holes that spinners would get aimed to. And on those still summer mornings and evenings when trout rose only to the tiniest bugs and the spin anglers left for the lakes and bigger rivers for walleye and crappies, the fly rod was the only thing to use for trout.

I sometimes travel back to those clear, gravel bottom streams to try my luck but times have changed and the quietude of that area of my youth has been mostly lost to a generation seeking outdoor pursuits. It’s still possible, sometimes, to find a bit of solitude, but it can be pretty iffy.

Last summer I met a man who is known for his fly fishing prowess here in the North Country. It was an accidental meeting involving a water diversion project we were both working on. Somehow we started talking fly fishing and soon all our conversations ended on the subject. It turned out we both had fished some of the same waters in Montana as well as locally and after some conniving and banter I convinced him to show me the favorite fly he kept bragging about. He doesn’t tie himself but has his flies tied for him down in Superior. One look at his fly, which I won’t mention by name, and I told him I could tie the same thing. The next day I presented him with a half dozen of the specimens and he agreed to show me some local trout. We met one evening on the river and caught and released a fair number of brookies, all taken on that same pattern. We’ve became friends and I’ll have a good number of that fly for him this spring, and I’m looking forward to fishing with him again.

Last week I halved wine bottle corks to shape into poppers and divers that I’ll fasten to a hook, add some fur and feather, and cast to both smallmouth and largemouth bass – and maybe some panfish along side. I wish there were better trout streams close by, but the flyrodding for smallmouth bass can be outstanding.

As I write this I can look over to my tying table, see my rods standing in a milk can and the old dental drawer that I keep the supplies in. I have some bits of fur from some of the critters I’ve trapped, some feathers from the birds and fowl, and pieces of tanned deer hides, with the hair, from local taxidermists. I use as much of these “homegrown” materials as I can when I’m making my flies, and I have one of my own patterns dubbed the “golden marten” than has proven itself for me and others on trout streams from here to Missoula. What good times it’s been. When it’s time to fish I don’t think about it, I just do it. But I sure think about it now.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Grouse for supper.

One of my favorite meals, anywhere, is fresh grouse grilled over the coals in camp. My old Smokey Joe has really gotten a workout over the years in grouse camps around the northern part of the state, and with good luck it will keep cooking in the years to come. There's nothing much better than a day hunting over a dog followed by an autumn evening under the stars after a tasty supper of the bounty. Of course a few spuds are welcome, too, and if there were some woodcock for appetizers, well, all the better. I know two real honest-to-goodness outdoor gourmet chefs who can do wonders with wild game, but I've served up a few platters in my time and have yet to get a complaint -- or leftovers for that matter.

In his excellent essay on woodcock, De La Valdene describes his dinner in a French restaurant where he was served the woodcock whole with its head tucked under a wing. It rested on a piece of toasted white bread and a dark puree was spooned over the works. He was encouraged to hold the head by its bill and bite off the top to get at the brain. I’m not sure that would go over very well around here, but he proclaimed the bird delicious. At any rate that kind of cooking is far too complicated for me.

I keep my cooking simple because I'm really not much of a cook. I wouldn't cook at all except for the fact that I like good food and I enjoy a good steak as much as anyone, but I believe wild game deserves a little more respect and care than the everyday U.S.D.A. fare, some of which gets force-fed and drugged and dyed and who knows what else before they wrap the plastic on it and call it "food." I've had too many wild game meals that were ruined by well meaning but inattentive cooks who just can't believe meat can cook that fast. Safety first, right? Cook the heck out of it.

My Rapala knife isn’t just for fish, and a couple of swipes yield two fine pieces of meat off a grouse breast. I have a few marinades I like to use, but laying ‘em on the grill with some s&p works for me, too. But don’t forget them. There’s time, if you don’t dally, to mix a birdshooter before they need to be turned. Done right they’ll cut with a fork and man, oh man, mmmm.

If the red gods are kind to me I’ll generally have a few birds tucked away in the freezer for this time of year. Long about now when snow is knee deep or better and I’m busting ice from the dog pails with a sledge hammer, I get a few withdrawal symptoms from bird season and find myself pulling out the shotgun and giving it a swing or two on some imagined grouse on a sunny October afternoon. And that is the time to chop some veggies and redskins and have some of those grouse fillets thawed and ready, ‘cause grouse dinner is about the best cure I know for wishing it was still bird season.

Occasionally I’ll fire up the grill out on the deck, but mostly this is indoor cooking in an iron skillet. I’m partial to olive oil and pepper, can’t imagine too many vegetables and can’t think of tastier wild game than ruffed grouse.

I don’t hunt for food, rather, it’s part of a dozen valid reasons for pursuing game with a gun. But when I sit down to a winter grouse dinner, some good bread and wine, I often believe it’s the only reason I need.