Monday, December 19, 2011

not ice fishing yet...

Today was one of those day’s that sticks with a person. No, nothing spectacular happened. Nothing earthshaking or heartbreaking. Just a simple day filled with simple pleasures that make it easy to believe we’d be content if everyday was like it.

I woke this morning with the sun, naturally with no alarm. There was no reason to hurry, I had nothing pressing to do. Just live out the day. I slipped into insulated coveralls to take care of the outside dogs and was surprised at the mild temperature outside. There was fresh coffee in the kitchen, but I let Jack and Molly run around while I grabbed the maul and split the blocks of birch I’d cut up yesterday. A good way to work up a bit of an appetite for breakfast.

Indoors the Christmas tree lights glowed cheerily and I traded looks between the tree in the living room and the birds outside the dining room window. Breakfast was tasty, and the coffee was particularly delicious. There were some freshly painted bass poppers drying in the den, so I moseyed in and experimented with ways to add rubber legs and skirts to the foam bodies before I put the finishing touches on them. All the while I pictured casting to a rocky shoreline and whooping it up when the hog bass bashed the fly on the surface, and contemplated the colors to complete them.

Over the last several weeks it’s become my practice to spend Sunday afternoons watching at least part of the football game with Dad at his home in town. We usually get some food, have a beer, and generally reaffirm how glad we are not to be devoted fans. As often as not we end the game playing dominoes at his table. That was my plan for this afternoon, but it was a beautiful day and there was time for a quick hunt on the way to town.

I turned Jack and Molly loose on a powerline that I wouldn’t usually hunt earlier in the season. There was mostly old timber bordering the right-of-way and much of the way is through swampy terrain that will have you knee deep in water when it’s not frozen. But it is frozen now, and with a couple of inches of snow and today’s sun and 30 degree temps it made for a fantastic day to be out.

Jack bounded ahead and disappeared into the woods while Molly raced around in front always keeping an eye on me. I was just enjoying the movement when I heard Jacks bell fall silent off the south side. I caught a look at his orange collar from under the powerline and heeled Molly as we came up behind him. I told Molly to sit when we were close and I moved around in front of Jack, shotgun at ready. I spotted a running grouse trying to put some distance between us and stepped quickly to get a position. The grouse ducked behind a huge old popple and took wing. I fired when I saw it for a bit but never touched it. Molly broke at the shot and started another grouse, this one heading fast the other way. Seems most of my shooting is best done when I have no time to think, and that’s how this worked. I stood happy with my gun open as the dogs looked for the bird when a third grouse got up from the same vicinity and came flying right at me at about eye level. It banked left when it was about thirty feet away, flying as slow as it could and still stay up, zigged through some trees, rose up over the cover and hung for a second before going on out of sight. About as easy as they come, if your gun is loaded!

The birds were in groups, as I often find them this time of year. They were in big woods with lots of balsam cover, too. Jack pointed three more times as we made our loop, and he had grouse before him each time.  I couldn't locate him when he stopped the last time. I had an idea where he might be but the cover was so tight and thick I was hesitant to go looking in case he was still moving. I tooted my whistle and heard his bell clink a bit just as a few wingbeats started. He was close and it sounded like a grouse had jumped to a tree. I pushed in and spotted him right off and knew he had grouse. Molly sat while I moved in keeping an eye to the trees above. A grouse jumped and disappeared from a tall balsam thirty yards away. I had to smile, Jack had another good find but I just didn't have a chance. I turned back and saw Jack still pointing in my direction and Molly sitting a few yards behind him. It was a neat sight and I said out loud "Nice." That's when the grouse sitting over my head took off like a rocket from the branch above. The grouse wasn't as fast as my load of birdshot, however, and after a quick retrieve we hunted our way to the truck and headed for town. I didn't kill every bird I saw, but it's something special when it works. The dogs love it and I doubt I’d be out there without them. The swamps are frozen and allow access that can't be had early in the season. Today I found a little high-ground island in the midst of wetlands that held two grouse. A good little piece of cover that I'll visit again, but only if the way is froze. The weather can shut us down anytime, now. I hate to know the last hunt of the year is over, but it may be. Still, my shotgun is at the ready, the dogs are willing, and for another day like today, you know where I’ll be.
Sunday 18 Dec. 2011

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Ole 'Ruff

A long time ago (actually, a long, long time ago – but I hate to believe so many years have passed) when I was hardly more than a lad I met a grouse not far from here that fooled me and my various dogs for years. I was shooting my old pump gun then, and was hunting with Tyler, the big liver springer spaniel and my first gundog and constant companion since I’d moved from my parents home. Tyler was a neat dog and I’m not kidding when I said constant companion. Everyone knew if I was to be invited anywhere, Tyler was coming too. It helped that he was awfully friendly and knew a bunch of parlor tricks like sitting up, playing dead, and rolling over on command. Come to think of it, I wonder now if Tyler was the reason I was invited anywhere.

Anyway, I was trying to learn how to hunt grouse in those days and one October afternoon I followed Tyler down a short two-track into a small, defunct gravel pit. We hiked the top ridge of the pit that was grown up in mostly big, dark balsam. Not really very good grouse cover but grouse are where you find them and besides, I didn’t really know good cover from bad in those days. But right on the top edge of the pit Tyler spun with bird scent and a big red-phased grouse blew up and into the balsams quick as lightning. Of course I shot, but my shot charge went where the bird was instead of where it was going. We worked our way around the pit and were done without moving another bird. I could have saved myself a lot of trouble had I crossed that spot off my list, but nope.

 I visited that pit several times that fall, determined to get the big red grouse that called it home. We moved the bird every time, and I took shots when I could but never cut a feather. The heavy balsams provided just too much escape cover for the bird, and my prowness with a gun was nothing to brag about, either. It sort of became personal, me versus ruffed grouse. I took Tyler in from every conceivable direction and because he was so well trained several times had him sit at one end of the cover until I circled around to the other side. The plan was for him to come at my whistle and push the bird towards my ambush. Tyler was totally into it and gave it his best, but the grouse always foiled our plan one way or another.

I could have brought in a gunning partner, I suppose. But I’d resolved to take this bird on my own, and I don’t think more guns would have helped, anyway. This grouse and I had something going on. And Tyler and I tried for him each year, when grouse were at high cycles and low, until Tyler took to the happy hunting grounds.

Pointing dogs didn’t help the odds much. My little setter Molly came closest, I suppose. She had the bird pointed on the far side and I saw it’s silhouette hop over a log and run down toward the wet alder swamp that bordered the small woods. I should have hurried to flush the bird, but Molly was very good at relocating and pinning grouse on the edge of their cover, so I let her go. She moved ahead cautiously, knowing this bird was no pushover. She worked her way through the tangle and stopped and stood tall ten yards from the swamp. I figured the bird would go out over the alders and offer a fairly open shot. But before I got to her she moved again this time out into the wet stuff and I heard her splashing as she followed the sneaky grouse into the swamp. I was about to call her off when she stopped and I could just see her rigid tail and head low like the bird was right there! Those alders are no place for people, but I fought my way close and was soaked to my knees when I heard the grouse flush and Molly gave a little jump but I never saw it. Molly’s grandson, Ty, locked up on the bird in about the same place years later. I wasn’t about to let the grouse run into the swamp again so I nearly ran down the hill hoping to get it in the air. But I couldn’t raise the bird. When I turned and started back up the hill the grouse took off from a branch and flew low right back over Ty’s head and I couldn’t shoot! If you can’t find some humor in this entire scenario you shouldn’t be hunting grouse, and this bird was really getting the best of me. Most times, however, the dog would point and the bird blast away before I could get a bead on it or flush in a swirl of leaves and put itself behind a tree just as I shot, or it would just flush wild and be gone when we entered the cover, apparently not in the mood to play our game.

Over the years I stopped at that pit once every season with a bird dog. Sometimes it was sunny, sometime rainy. Sometimes dry and sometimes snow. There was always just the one bird there, never more. I’ve tried for that bird with six worthy setters, one pointer, and four different shotguns. The trail is grown in now, barely discernable from the road, and the gravel pit has trees growing in it. It’s still not much of a cover and I wouldn’t hunt there if not for the effort of matching wits with that one particular bird. I can’t help but wonder if that grouse knows it’s still me. And does it appreciate the game of it as much as I do? Does Mister Ruff get a chuckle out of making me look the fool every time I chase it? Of course it’s unrealistic to think that same grouse has lived there all this time, but I can believe the bird I flush is a descendant, can’t I? After all, those times I do get one rare fleeting glimpse of him, when the sunlight penetrates the cover and he turns just right I can see the red color of his tail. Just like the first time I encountered him when I hunted in Levis jeans and Red Wing boots and carried an old Remington 870 that I bought used when I was in high school.

The hunting this year has been kind of spotty. Some good covers had no birds, others had some, and still others had plenty. The early season was terribly hot and very hard on dogs that had spent the summer mostly lying in the shade and chasing the occasional squirrel or tossed tennis ball. Then we hunted in rain – not enough to fill water holes in the woods, but enough to get soaked pushing through the brush. The later part of October was the turnaround for me. We found and killed grouse and woodcock, the weather was perfect and even though a few good days can make a season, and often does, I can’t help wishing October wasn’t so short.

Jack and I stopped at the old gravel pit on our way to some ‘good’ cover. Jack was fresh out of the truck and when I turned him loose he tore off down the faint trial and flew up and over the top of the old pit. I followed him up and was surprised to see how much of the old balsam woods had been blown down since my last time here. Jack was out ahead and I picked my way through fallen trees trying to keep up. Suddenly a grouse exploded from under standing balsams on my right and crossed into the tiniest opening over a couple of downed trees. I swung my Parker on instinct and the grouse dropped in a shower of feathers! I stood sort of slack-jawed and silent, but Jack came back at the shot, quickly found the grouse and delivered it to my hand. It was a beautiful, red phased cock grouse with gorgeous bronze neck ruffs. As pretty a bird as I’ve ever seen. The grouse I’d been after for thirty years was finally mine.


Friday, November 11, 2011

November camp

I was the first into camp Friday evening. The sun had not quite dropped below the horizon so I was able to load my cot and gear into the tent before dark. The white canvas tent had been set two weeks before, and other than one visit from me during the week, had sat undisturbed waiting to provide warmth and shelter for us hunters who have come to rely on it. I was just about to mix myself a birdshooter when headlights rounded the corner and John pulled his truck in next to mine. Tony and Jack wouldn’t get into camp until Sunday morning, so John and I had the place to ourselves for opening day. We spent a pleasant evening warm by the woodstove and talked about the hunting and fishing we’d enjoyed since last year, and the hunt we would partake in the morning. I don’t see him often, but John knows dogs, guns, and rods and uses them whenever he can. Like me. Outside, a bright moon cast shadows on the ground while an unseasonable wind buffeted the tent walls and shook the hissing lantern hanging from the ceiling. We’re there to hunt deer, I suppose, but where else do you find like-minded companions to spend the evening hours admiring rifles, comparing new ammo, analyzing backpacks and boots? We cooked brats, drank whiskey and told stories until I finally slipped into my bag and was soon sleeping.

I’ve spent time in a number of camps over the years. Some were pretty deluxe with private bedrooms, complete baths and showers, kitchens and living rooms. I spent a week in one camp, if you can call it that, complete with a caretaker and cook that had meals waiting when we were ready for them. I’ve also been at the other end of the spectrum – sleeping in a little nylon dome tent huddled deep in a thick sleeping bag only to crawl out in the morning, shivering myself warm enough to grab my rifle and trudge through snow in my quest for deer.

I suppose we all reach a time in our lives when we need and expect a certain level of personal comfort. Some might think camping in a tent, with no running water, keeping a fire stoked in the stove is roughing it. Well, I’ve had it a lot rougher. A good cot with a pad and warm sleeping bag makes a fine bed, and I’m happy to be lulled to slumber by the wind, the hooting owls, howling wolves, and other night sounds of the woods. In fact, come opening morning I remember how comfortable and cozy I was and how I would have liked to sleep longer had I not felt the need to be in the woods well before sunrise. The portability of a tent is neat, too. While we’ve all hunted basically the same area for years, we’ve moved camp to different locales for quicker access to some new cover, or easier access in case of deep snow, or maybe just a change of scenery. We drive our trucks right to camp, but I can imagine horse-backing into western mountains with this same outfit.

We do most of our cooking outside the tent, and I’d brought some of last years venison to grill over coals Saturday evening. John and I both enjoyed the tender slices of backstrap for a true hunter’s supper. As it turned out, we could have feasted on tenderloins from deer taken that morning, but you never know it will turn out like that. There are two camp tables in the tent, one for the two-burner propane stove, and one for the kitchen. Morning coffee and hearty breakfasts are cooked inside while we finalize hunting strategies and pull on wool pants and boots for the day.

I had a ways to go to get to the high oak ridge I hunt, so John filled my cup with strong coffee and I was off. Years before, I’d found my hunting spot by accident. I was still-hunting and exploring this high scrub-oak country and not seeing much deer sign. I sat on a fallen log and leaned against a pine to relax for a bit and figure out my next move. It was mid-morning and something stirred to my left. My heart pounded when I saw the antlers, and then I made out the legs. But I saw nothing else until the deer made me and disappeared. I sat stunned and wondered how I should have handled it differently. Good bucks are rare and I figured I blew my chance for the year. Maybe a half hour later I heard a snort and bent my head around the pine to see behind me. Another buck stood looking at me perhaps 40 yards away. A blowdown blocked it’s body, but it hardly mattered – he knew I was there and bolted before I had a chance. Wow, I thought! Two shooter bucks within an hour. I’ll probably never have chances like that again in my life! I was a ways back in the woods but I looked at that pine and determined to have an elevated stand leaning on it next year, though could I reasonably expect to see deer like that ever again? I leaned on the tree and munched my sandwich with a plan in mind.

I've hunted that ridge every season since. My stand is in place and even from that it’s hard to see far in that thick, brushy country. I scout just a bit before season, and never have seen much for deer sign there, but I have a superstitious feeling about the place and leave it alone as much as I can, other than leaning my stand on that same pine tree. Others have been there to complain about the lack of view and suggest some shooting lane cuttings but I know from experience when the deer come, they can be seen. I won’t risk messing the place up thinking I’m “improving” it.

John and I met at camp that afternoon and toasted our good fortunes. John took his buck in a newly discovered cutting closer to camp and spent the rest of the day scouting and placing stands for Jack and Tony. I scouted the day away looking for sign along the hilltops where I hunt. At camp that evening I fired the grill for supper and we spent a satisfied and relaxing evening telling our tales. The day outside had worked it’s magic and we cut the celebration short trying to keep our eyes open. With the promise of sleeping in and enjoying a big breakfast we hit the cots and listened to a light rain on the tent roof for minutes before drifting off.

Deer camp stories have been written and told for many more years than I’ve been around, and I know plenty of folks who find their deer hunting enjoyment from just being in camp. Some old timers, and not so old timers are happy to hunt little and hang around camp a lot keeping a fire stoked, a stew on the stove, and an ear open for rifle shots. Some guys just want to get away from routines for awhile and would no sooner forget the deck of cards as they would the rifles. I have to admit, deer camp is fun to be around, but for me, so far, there’s a valid and logical conclusion to it all. I’m lucky and thankful to take part.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Reduced to Possession?

Really? What a strange term – reduced to possession – and one that I’ve never liked. I know it generally describes the end result of killing a game animal, but I could never agree that the grouse in my hand has been reduced in any way. If anything it seems the bagged quarry is elevated somehow, for as much as we think of and talk of the beauty of the bird, don’t we really only become fully aware of genuine beauty when we have it close in hand. Of course, the bird might have a differing opinion of all this but it’s an unthoughtful and cold hearted gunner who doesn’t appreciate, at least for a moment, the dark neck ruffs and intricate markings of the feathers before smoothing them a bit before sliding the bird into the gamebag. I can’t say I’ve ever pouched a bird without fanning it’s tail open for a few seconds, at least. Maybe I was confirming the sex, or the size, but likely I was just looking at it because I wanted to. I can’t walk by a good work of art without doing the same. Sometimes I’m drawn to stopping and gazing at the view, a dog, or maybe my gun, for much the same unexplainable reasons. Sure, I know there are guys who swat birds and toss ‘em into a milk crate strapped to an ATV or into the back of a pickup with as much deliberation as they would dropping cans of beans into a shopping cart. I don’t get that and I don’t know what to think of it.

Nor have I ever harvested a grouse. I’ve harvested some tomatoes. Some potatoes, too. Quite a variety of vegetables now that I think of it. But I’m not a farmer – I don’t have the stuff it takes for that – I’m a hunter/gatherer. Grouse, like all the best of Nature are wild and natural. Have you ever heard anyone state they were out harvesting blueberries, or morels? Really? Even if they’re not wild, say we raise them, do we really harvest any animals? Does the stockman say he’s going to harvest some steers at slaughter time? We hunt grouse don’t we?... but we don’t “harvest” them.

I suppose it’s all just a way of describing the killing of game in an unassertive manner to avoid stirring the pot of the anti-hunting type of folks who are all so quick to proclaim what we do is wrong. I expect there are those of you who have to put up with that sort of thing more than I do. It’s easy for me to just avoid it. So, if you have to make your life easier by ending your hunting trip saying “I harvested a grouse, today,” well... I’m sorry. But believe me, you’ll feel better if you can boast, “Yep, I got me two grouse today” or “Yessir, I killed the biggest grouse I’ve ever seen. Took two shots, but I got ‘im. Just look at these tail feathers!"

I’ve shot birds with fellows who, when birds flushed, yelled “Kill it! Kill it!” That was always kinda disconcerting to me. It would have been far worse, though much funnier if they’d yelled “Harvest it! Harvest it!” Ha, that cracks me up just thinking about it!

While I’m on the subject of what I deem as incorrect lingo, the other day I was talking to a new hand in the sporting goods store about the right size scope cover for the optics on my deer rifle. He said I should bring the weapon in. God forbid I ever use it as a weapon.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

September! Already!

Man, bird season opens in ten days and I haven’t finished my June fishing yet! I just spun new line on a reel today when I suppose I should be oiling the boots and getting some shot shells lined up. I still think I need to wave a fly rod at some more sunnies and bass before summer is gone. The days are still summer warm but the evenings have been getting right chilly. My neighbors over in Embarrass took a frost last Sunday evening. A few weeks ago I was working dogs with a buddy and we talked big ideas of shooting clay pigeons and scouting out new places to hunt before season. Well, we haven’t started that, either.

A while back I opened an insistent e-mail that simply stated, “There’s no excuse not to go fishing ” It was from my buddy Scott who spends his summer days-off fly-fishing a couple of neat rivers for, mainly, smallmouth bass. We’d never gotten our spring trout camp put together and after a number of false starts he laid it on the line, so to speak, and quite perfectly to boot! I had days available, and the desire to continue my quest for the large bass taken with a fly of my own making. So after the many e-mailed photos of Scott and company posing with recently hooked bass of hefty proportions, the plan was made.

I’d never fished the river we met on, but it’s a real beauty. Hardly any development along its banks, too shallow and rocky for any heavy boat traffic, and a good population of smallmouth bass. The order of the day was drifting downstream to a take-out point, tossing large poppers and divers to the shoreline and jerking them back with quick, violent strips of the line.

Most of my angling consists of wading or sitting in a canoe or boat, so standing on the raised deck of Scotts jon-boat sometimes tested my balance and though I caught myself a few times, I managed to stay in the boat throughout. A western style drift boat would be a nice way to go, but the jon-boat works well and I brought home some ideas on how I would modify one for that type of drift fishing. Scott floats the river often and made a fine guide, optimistic and complimenting my accidental accuracy when appropriate. We took turns at the oars and I learned something watching him fish the river, too.

There’s some kind of excitement seeing your popper explode in a splash as a river-raised smallmouth hits and takes off. The fish living in this current are strong and the thumping rod relays their effort to shake the hook loose. They often clear the water at first, dancing on their tails before bulldogging their way to the rocky bottom and doing their best at staying there. Neither of us caught the 20 incher that day, though it’s no surprise that Scott took the biggest. Fighting a stiff wind part of the time and constant casting or rowing had me getting sloppier and sloppier, and after something like 9 hours on the river I was kinda tired out. But a good kind of tired and one I’m looking forward to again.

It’s hard to stop having that kind of fun, so days later I waded the rocky Cloquet River without as much success at catching fish, and the fish I caught were indeed smaller, but with apologies to J. Gierach, I was, at least, standing in a river waving a stick.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

canoe camp...

When I was a kid in Boy Scout camp I failed over and over to earn a merit badge in woodcraft ‘cause I kept forgetting to make sure nobody was in range while I was chopping wood. I guess I figured if anyone was dumb enough to get close to a kid with an axe, they’d get what they deserved. But the night games of capture-the-flag and afternoons canoeing on the Mississippi river made it all worth it, even though I couldn't get anyone interested in paddling across and invading Wisconsin by water. Maybe that’s when I realized much of my outdoors life would be spent alone.

My camping has come quite a ways since those days, but it usually still amounts to crawling in a tent and sleeping real close to Mother Earth. There are exceptions, of course, like hunting camps in comfortable cabins or sleeping in some kind of RV during a fun recreational weekend. All in all, however, my camps still have a primitive flavor to them.

Living close to Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness has afforded me some wonderful camping opportunities and some great country to travel and fish in. I’ve made some unforgettable canoe trips through the BWCA and the Canadian counterpart, Quetico Provincial Park. Early on I was impressed with the idea of going it alone and soon found my way to owning several solo canoes before I settled on the one that I still have today. My first trips were learning experiences. I used gear I’d collected when I was tripping with a group and quickly learned that weight is the enemy for a solo traveler  and I took to updating just about everything I owned from tents to sleeping bags, to stoves and packs. When all was said and done I was comfortable and confident with my stuff and was spending weeks each year in canoe country, by myself.

I recall easy quiet mornings where the only sounds were from songbirds and my deer hair popper’s “bloop!” on the still surface of a border lake shoreline. Always expecting the ferocious strike, it seems so unexpected when it does happen. Like buck fever in the deer woods, my heart races as the fly rod bends to the weight of a diving fish. Then there was the evening on the north end of a broad Quetico lake when schools of minnows boiled the surface and jumped from the water hoping to escape the pursuing lake trout that coursed back and forth just beneath my canoe. I wonder if I’ll ever see anything like that again, or experience that kind of fishing? And could anyone ever tire of the loon’s piercing call that startles you awake during the night, then to lie back on the sleeping pad and enjoy the song through thin tent walls?

 I’ve caught scores of walleyes in those lakes, and pike so large I wouldn’t try to get into my canoe. I’ve been pulled far across clear lakes by large lake trout not willing to give up and I’ve enjoyed backwoods fish fries that still make my mouth water. I’ve camped in the best of weather and some of the worst. I’ve lain on rocks and became sunburned at water’s edge, and I’ve huddled under a tarp while storms pummeled my camp to a muddy mess.

I’ve also made trips that were mainly focused of traveling and exploring, and some of the sights and experiences are indescribable. I remember one camp where I sat on the shoreline and watched a moose feeding across the lake the same time a bear was prowling a couple of hundred yards from it, all the while a pine marten was exploring my campsite behind me. I once ignored a Quetico ranger’s route warning and failed four times to paddle upstream into a dangerous chute that was bound to capsize me in high cold water. Unwilling to backtrack, I ended up spending hours cutting my own portage. There was another early season trip where I found portages flooded and pushed my loaded canoe through the trees to a lake waiting ahead. From the lake looking back it was impossible to find the portage trail and I was happy to make camp knowing I was not returning that way.

A few days ago I woke to hear rain pelting my tent. It was the same rain I fell asleep to, but it’s a different matter to be lulled into dreamland by the rain than to know I’d have to get up and break camp in it. So I relaxed in my bag and listened, and dozed, while the rain and wind drummed and rustled the nylon tent surrounding me. For those who have experienced it, you know there’s nothing quite like it and I hope to enjoy again, soon.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Lightweight canoe & 6 weight rod...

The foam frog landed inches from the shoreline and rested a few long seconds before I gave a short jerk and plopped it a foot across the surface. It sat still for a moment before the line slowly started to drag it into the lake. That’s when the smallmouth bass hit it with gusto and the fight was on! The fish pulled back and forth before it broke the surface and I’m sure I was wearing a smile that matched the bend in my rod. I was happy to reach down and grab the fish by the lip and admire the feisty bass before releasing it to grow and fight again. Three days before I was catching eating-size crappies on another lake with minnows and jigs but there’s nothing quite like playing a lively fish on the fly rod!

I’d found this little lake years ago when I was exploring grouse covers with my setters. It takes a half-mile hike to reach it from the forest road, which is enough to nearly guarantee an un-crowded setting, and it felt good to have my canoe on my shoulders as I made the portage in. A walleye stocking effort failed, but the smallmouth bass population is claimed to be “thriving,” which is a stirring declaration to a guy who loves pursuing them with a fly rod.

Author Jim Harrison wrote about the world-class smallmouth fly fishing he enjoyed in Quetico Park, which isn’t all that far from me. I’ve been there a lot, and have experienced the best of it as well, but it requires some planning, reservations, fees, and a couple of days (at least) of canoe travel and camping. Whenever I can get a lead on some close bass waters I take heed, and if it can duplicate some wilderness travel all the better. There’s nothing like fooling a fish, any fish, with fly-fishing gear and I'm happy for the chances I get.

When I was getting my gear together I opened a box and found a pair of foam frogs I don’t recall purchasing. I know I didn’t tie them myself – they may have been a gift, but they were too appealing to leave home. I assume they were designed for large-mouth bass, but it was worth giving them a try on the water I was heading for. Besides, how fun it would be to catch fish on something that looks like a cartoon character!
I couldn’t have picked a better day than yesterday. The day before I worked the dogs between rainstorms until the big ones blew in that afternoon and chased me home with lightning and thunder. Today is much the same with wind and rain, but yesterday was calm, cool, and mostly overcast. The goldfinches and rose-breasted Grosbeaks were feasting at my feeders when I left home and it seemed a perfect day. Even my casting came easily and my rod felt like an old friend as the line unfurled overhead and stretched out on target after a long winter’s rest. And it was easy to keep the canoe in position and work the shoreline with my offerings, something I don’t take for granted, since even a soft breeze can become a battle in a solo canoe.

I didn’t hammer the bass like I’d hoped, but I did affirm there was a good population that I will be happy to visit again. Nor did I land any big trophies, but I’m encouraged by a good number of spawning beds, even though I saw only one with a bass tending. I fished the frog for a while until the action slowed and then had success with a deer-hair diver. My Clouser Minnows hooked one nice pike, but I couldn’t hook a bass with them. Still, it was a fine day on the water with canoe and rod so I toasted my good fortune with Makers Mark and hit the sack with a smile. I believe it is early yet, and the smallmouths will be more aggressive in the coming days. I only hope I can get there to find out!

30 May 2011

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Girl Scout Cookies, Free Coffee, and Karma

Yesterday I swung through town on my way to hook up with some friends for an evening of live music and stopped at the grocery store to grab one of my favorite hot sandwiches. I entered the store, turned for the deli and walked right past two young girls sitting at a table selling Girl Scout cookies. It didn’t register at first, but I didn’t get far when I was stopped by a memory.

Some years ago my friend Charlie and I where heading home from a bird dog field trial in Tennessee. It was around this time of year, early March, and though no one is ever in a hurry to leave the warm breeze and welcoming quail plantations of the Cumberland Plateau for the cold and snow of northern Minnesota, we were anxious to have the miles behind us.

We were driving a one-ton diesel and pulling a 30-foot horse trailer loaded with three horses, nine English setters, and two pointers. The radio was warning of a winter storm moving in from the north when we pulled into one of those mega truck stops somewhere in Kentucky. While the fuel pump ran I went inside to fill my coffee cup and find the restrooms. Inside was a typical looking convenience store setup that I passed through and walked past a diner area where half a dozen road weary truck drivers sat at the counter having a bite to eat and talking about bad weather coming. I set my cup on the counter and when the waitress asked, “Black?” I nodded and continued down the hall. A little video arcade caught my attention to the left with its flashing lights and dinging bells. On my way back from the restroom I noticed a little girl and her mother sitting at a table filled with boxes of Girl Scout cookies. They were across from the arcade and I hadn’t seen them the first time through. I was eager to hit the road and walked right past their warm southern smiles. I was almost to the cash register when I thought “wait a minute, I’m not in that big a hurry.” Then I turned around and walked back to buy some cookies. The mother helped the little girl make change and she delivered her “thank you, sir,” with the sweetest Kentucky accent I’ve ever heard.

Up at the checkout stood a gray bearded trucker with a cowboy hat and he looked at my boxes of cookies. “I see you got yourself some cookies, me too,” he said and showed me his box of Thin Mints. “Yeah,” I replied with the first thing that came to mind, “if I’d walked by that little girl selling cookies I’d have bad luck for a week.” The gray trucker gave me a grin and a nod and turned to finish his business. The men at the counter may have overheard us or not, but at any rate six gruff truckers rose from their stools and lined up to buy some cookies from that little scout. It was a neat scene, though the poignancy didn’t strike me until later up the highway, but when I went to pay for my coffee the smiling waitress offered, “Why don’t you have a donut with that coffee, on the house!” Charlie and I drove north, missed the worst of the storm, and enjoyed a good trip home munching Kentucky bought Girl Scout cookies.

Needless to say, yesterday in the store I did an “about face” and strolled back to buy myself some cookies from those young girl scouts.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

a strangers view...

After one peaceful evening last October I crawled out of my tent to a frosty, dark morning a hundred or so miles west of here. I was over there exploring some new hunting areas during the day and sitting outside in the chilly air sipping Knob Creek and pondering the Hunter's moon at night. A pretty fine way to spend some time, I think, and that morning I was about to light my stove and boil up some coffee when I thought "to heck with it," and drove into the nearest town to get some breakfast.

It was still dark when I spotted a little diner with quite a few vehicles parked outside and a sign that claimed "home cooking." As it turned out the claim was false. Compared to the mostly sorry breakfasts I usually have, this place was far better. I suppose most everyone in the place knew each other so I got the usual looks when a stranger comes into a place like that. It was during the week and I'm guessing most of the regulars worked at an equipment manufacturing plant a few miles outside of town. I sat down at a table and the waitress came and poured me coffee without my asking and told me the breakfast special was the way to go. So I ordered it without knowing what it was. A minute later I saw it posted on a chalkboard by the door.

An older guy that everyone greeted by name came in and took a stool at the counter and ordered his meal while she poured his coffee. I kinda overheard the waitress scolding him and warning about his cholesterol level and health in general. A couple of others seemed to side with the waitress and joined in. I'm thinking he had a heart problem, or something. He knew these folks were his friends and were concerned about him, but he just took a sip from his cup and looked up and said, "Now listen..."

Then this guy went on to tell them just how content he was and how he'd seen the world in the service, lived in Hawaii for a while, built his own house in the woods with the help of his wife and raised three kids, the early years without electricity, who were grown and successful and gone. He'd fished and hunted in Alaska and worked and played hard all his life, and made a passel of friends doing it. His wife had passed and he didn't figure at his age there was much left ahead for him. He was happy and satisfied and all he wanted in life was a big plate of bacon and eggs -- and if it killed him he'd have no regrets.

While I was digging into my own bacon and eggs I thought about what he'd talked about. I don't think everyone has to go skydiving or bull-fighting to live a full life, but you need to do something. We all have things we want and need to do that are important to us. I guess we all have our own bucket list. The idea is to keep it short.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Won't be Spring for awhile...

…but it almost felt like it for a couple of days last week. We enjoyed melting weather for three days, and one night it didn’t freeze and there was no ice on the water buckets in the morning. Nice. The sidewalks and kennels were down to bare concrete, people were skiing in shorts and tees, and it was downright pleasing to have a case of spring fever. We missed the January thaw, there wasn’t one. It seemed like it snowed daily since Thanksgiving and when it wasn’t snowing it was 20 below or colder. So this February thaw was more than welcome. Of course it didn’t last.

This morning I woke early but, weary of crawling out of the sack in the dark, I napped until the rays of the morning sun broke into the window and I could see the grosbeaks, and chickadees, and redpolls flitting around the bird feeder. I was still in pajamas when I pulled on my boots and coat and followed Ty out into the sunny morning to let Jack and Molly loose from the kennel. I kind of hated to let them out because the packed snow around the feeders is high enough that Molly can nearly jump up and reach them. The grosbeaks are shy and non-confrontational and won’t tolerate being hassled by an annoying spaniel, so they leave immediately. Only the chickadees are brave enough to quickly land, grab a seed, and head for the higher branches of the trees. When the dogs get tired of chasing little birds and head off for another part of the yard to search for mischief, a hoary woodpecker will appear and take a few stabs at the suet, and a nuthatch will join the chickadees for a quick bite.

I didn’t stay out long in my pjs. The thermometer read minus 5 and the lure of hot coffee inside was too much to ignore. After breakfast I sat with a cup and watched the birds for a while, and now and then a setter or spaniel would pass by on snow banks window high. The dogs were light-footing across the yard on a thin crust of snow. Every dozen steps they would break through and I could nearly feel their frustration at not being able to open up. I also had a feeling the conditions would make for some wonderful snowshoe travel and before long I was outside affirming the idea.

A light dusting had fallen last night, just enough to make for excellent tracking. The crusty snow held my weight and I snowshoed throughout the woods easily and randomly north. There was no need or desire for a trail so I just walked where I wanted. I carried my cruiser axe in case I had reason to clear branches but there was no need; I just took the clearest route, but I did use the axe to check the snow depth beneath me out of curiosity. Each time I pushed the handle into the snow it went the entire length right to the steel head of the axe.

I saw tracks of fox, coyote, fisher, marten, squirrel, rabbit, mice, and deer. The deer were using packed trails and I’m sure they’re having a heck of a time now. I expect we’ll lose a fair number this year. I did not find any wolf tracks in the area I covered behind my house, which is a bit unusual. I have to pity those deer when their tiny hoofs pierce the crust that holds up the broad-footed wolves. I've seen the results and know how harsh Nature can be. There were also grouse tracks, and quite a few of them, which I always like to see. I think the grouse will have a hard time getting through the crust right now and that’s a concern, especially if it stays cold, but this happens every year and the grouse always seem to survive. Though today I never saw any wildlife other than at my bird feeders, I’ve been seeing grouse regularly coming out to road edges and pecking gravel and high in birch trees feeding on, I suppose, catkins. I often flush grouse near my pigeon loft and wonder if they are there for some feathered company.

This afternoon the clouds rolled in and it started snowing. There were several inches of fresh snow by dark and I’ll bet tomorrow morning will be a good time to be on skis. Hhmmm…

Sunday, February 13, 2011


I fell in love with snowshoes when I was yet a teenager and spent much of my time outdoors chasing all manner of wildlife and exploring hills and valleys and rivers and such. I was trying to learn how to catch fox in traps and having some success. But when the snow became too deep for easy walking even I had to concede to something more reasonable. However, I thought, if I had snowshoes there would be no safe fox for miles. I made my first pair from scrape plywood and a couple of miles of bailing twine. The result never lived up to the anticipation but the course was established, and snowshoes would become necessary winter gear for myself.

I broke my first snowshoe on my first winter camping trip. Some friends and I set up in the Whitewater River valley and explored the river bottom like we never had before. The open river winding through the snowy woods and meadows was a sight. Somewhere along the way we broke into a rowdy game of snow tag and I was running full out when I caught a toe or hit a hole or something. I went tail over teakettle and when the explosion of snow settled I looked down to see the frame of my shoe broken in two places. Little did I know then that I was about to embark on a lifetime of broken snowshoes, skis, canoes and other assorted outdoor gear. I still have that shoe with the metal splints I attached to keep it all together, but it was never the same.

This is a year for snowshoes if I ever saw one. There is no going into the woods without them and I dislike being confined to the plowed yard and roads. Even the powerful snowmobiles seldom leave the groomed trails – I asked a neighbor motor-head if he could break a shortcut ski-trail for me to the groomed trails of Big Aspen on his monster Polaris, or Ski Doo, or whatever it is. No, he reckoned, it wasn’t worth the risk of getting stuck out in those woods. So I broke the mile trail myself, on my snowshoes.

I’ve used bearpaw and beavertail style snowshoes but long ago became convinced longer and narrower Alaskans were the way to go. Ojibwas have a pointed toe but are otherwise about the same as Alaskans. I’ve tramped through a lot of brush on snowshoes and can’t say a pointed toe is any real advantage. They all get tangled and the best thing is to avoid the worst of the brush. When the course is more open the Alaskan, or pickerel, style allow a more natural stride but when the snow is deep like now, it’s still a leg burner. Rubber bindings are fast on and off, but for long hauls the A-type binding offers me more stability and I’m experimenting with the old wick binding described in The Snow Walkers Companion.

I like the art of traditional wood and rawhide. Now that I’ve re-laced a snowshoe of my own, I really appreciate the technique of the snowshoe craftsman. Even though I’ve broken a number of ash frames in various mishaps, I don’t see the day soon approaching when I’d buy a pair of the new metal and composite materials. They may work fine and some have a binding/crampon combo that would be awesome climbing hills, but the ash and rawhide shoes give me a feeling something akin to old double guns and felt hats. There is modern gear out there that may be as good or even better, but some of the old ways seem worth hanging on to.

It’s a real winter, here. Roofs are collapsing under snow loads and there’re plenty of 25 –35 below zero temps. The ski trails are excellent, grouse are comfortable in snow roosts, and the deer are yarded up. The woods are snow filled and beautiful and snowshoes provide the means to get out and see it. Neat.

Monday, January 17, 2011


When it comes to hunting partners, I’ve long held the belief that dogs were hard to beat. We’ve all heard the cliché about getting along better with dogs than with people. That might be a little bit true in my case. For more years than I care to admit, a good hunt meant a good gun, good boots, and a good dog. I’ll always consider it a measure of fortune to have seen and gunned over at least my share of fine canine companions. And for some years, it seems, canines were the only companions I cared to share the grouse covers with. Occasionally, however, I would find myself in the company of a like-minded cohort whose amity I welcomed. Over the years I have found myself sharing cover and camp with a number of folks that have enriched the entire experience.                                                                                      

Dad is a man who hunted and fished most every chance he had. He grew up in a family of ten siblings and wild game was an important addition to the larder. Outdoor pursuits were a way of life for him and he passed that on to me. Years later we hunted grouse together over my English setters, a different method than he employed over his beloved springers and labs, but the twinkle in his eyes on those fine October days divulged the familiar pleasure he felt toting a gun behind bird dogs. I learned the way of the woods and waters from him, in my teens we hunted together on more equal terms, but it was finally as adults we hunted as partners. We weren't so much trying to bag game for the pot, though he shot very well and dropped birds that I still can hardly believe; we were out to enjoy brisk Autumn days and each others company. He’s in his eighties now and hunting for him is mostly hearing my tales and recalling his own. What a pleasure it is. 

Good dogs are hard to come by, I know, but a good hunting partner is equally rare. Now, I’ve taken folks hunting and I’ve guided folks hunting and had great times doing it, but you don’t take a partner hunting; you just go hunting. After a while you get to know where each other will be without having to look. You get to know how a partner will approach a dog on point, what to look for when they yell “Your way!” and what they mean when they say, “I never expected you to miss that one!” We’ve come to know each other’s dogs, shotguns, shooting and casting skills, tastes in backwoods diners, favorite game recipes, and whiskey. When I go in the thick stuff to flush a bird I know where my partner is, and he knows where I am. We kid each other about missed shots and lost fish when we're on the water, and appreciate and congratulate each other when it all works perfectly.

PJ took to grouse hunting like a natural, pushing through the cover, keeping track of the dog and doing a fine job of handling a shotgun as well. She knows which end of a canoe paddle to hang on to and how to sling a packsack, too. Women can look pretty darn sharp when they want, but when I see a gal in outdoor clothes and with a knowledge of hunting and fishing gear I can’t imagine how she could be anymore attractive. We explored the covers and enjoyed far better luncheons than I would have alone -- or with any other partner, for that matter. The dogs loved her doting manner; I benefited from her company, and loved watching her shoot unencumbered by ego or pride. Unfortunately, she hadn’t grown up hunting and I lacked what it took to keep her interested, so when her interests changed I lost a fine gunning partner.


There was a time when good piece of bird cover was called a “covert,” and some of the sporting books still use the term. That the word covert is synonymous with “secret” and “concealed” is no accident. Partners have coverts that they will only visit together, and when my partner takes me to a new place I don’t mark it on my GPS and I won’t take any other hunter there. For those of us who follow bird dogs on preciously offered autumn days, hunting spots are closely guarded secret locations, and there are times when extreme measures are taken to keep them that way. It doesn’t matter that other hunters may traverse the same ground, and perhaps have names for those areas, when I mention heading for “The Loop,” or “Sweet Miss,” or “The Puppy Course,” there are some of us who know exactly where I’m referring to.

I met Scott many years ago at a field trial. He started much like I did – eager, broke, a taste for Old Milwaukee, and in possession of fine bird dogs. Together we’ve paddled rocky rivers and fly-fished for smallmouth bass, waded and floated world-class Montana streams casting to rising trout, shared camps and Dakota prairies chasing sharptails, huns, and pheasants, and searched out and pursued grouse and woodcock over our dogs in earnest. I know him pretty well, and he knows me and I can’t think of a better partner to have. We live a couple hundred miles apart so it’s always some planning to pull a trip off, but it’s worth the effort. I like to think I played a small part in improving his taste in whiskey, but there’s still a tradition of ending the day with a welcomed Old Mil!

This fall CRP made the trip from the east coast to hunt with Scott and we all met up halfway between Scott’s camp and my place for a successful grouse shoot. The last time I hunted with CRP was in North Dakota some years ago. He’s been in Minnesota a number of times since, and we finally were able to get together and gun over his impressive champion setters.

Paul came to me with his enthusiastic young Llewellin setter looking for a little help getting her started. Together we worked Scarlet on all manner of birds from pigeons to chukars, quail, and finally wild grouse and woodcock. She turned out a pretty decent bird dog and Paul is always fun to be around. He lives close and though we’ve only hunted together recently, it looks like I’ve found myself another fine partner. I know it was fun having him along in the thick this past fall; at least one of us could usually get a shot off. Those grouse have a way of flying off the other way when flushed, but when another gun is waiting that other way, well… now you’ve got something.

At days end there is little better than sharing a meal and partaking in a little post-hunt celebration; recounting the day, the dog work, shots hit and missed, wildlife spotted, the weather, and the general good fortune in doing what you want, when you want, and with whom you want. Sometimes the day’s results could be boasted in sports shops and taverns, and other times in less tangible terms – either way, a good partner is good to have.