Monday, December 29, 2014

still dogs...

When you’ve spent most of your life in the company of hunting dogs it hardly occurs what things would be like without one. When I was a kid I never really considered our spaniels and labs as hunting dogs. To me, they were just dogs. In the off season they were pets and companions. And they were always around.  It seemed second nature then, that when I walked or pedaled my bicycle down the road a dog would be at my side or when my dad’s car door opened a dog would either slip in or hop out, depending on if the car was coming or going. Feeding the dog after supper was a chore that I more or less assumed everyone did, though when my buddies and I got together for a whittling session with our pocket knives or a backyard football game, it seems the only dog there was mine. When autumn came the same dog flushed and retrieved every sort of game we could get a shot at. There was nothing unusual about it: just normal living.

I remember when I was in my twenties, working a tough and dirty nightshift job, I would spend long and monotonous hours in a perpetual daydream about hunting grouse over an English setter. I was getting pretty well settled in my own home by then and spent my free time hunting and fishing. I had a big liver Springer spaniel named Tyler who was a pretty good dog, but I’d starting reading a lot of sporting literature by then and I couldn’t get the vision of that pointing dog out of my head. I’d shot plenty of birds over Tyler, but grouse often flushed the wrong way and I started believing I would get shots at every grouse if only I had a pointing dog. And while I entertained that fantasy, I reckoned the right dog would make me a better shot, as well.

Even though I’d never seen a pointing dog in action, and the fact that I grew up with Labs and springers, there was never any doubt when the time came the breed for me was a setter. I didn’t realize it at that time, but the vision of pointing dogs may have been sort of imprinted in my head since I was a little boy. It took a while, but when my folks were moving and selling their big house they asked me to take what I wanted from my upstairs bedroom, which was pretty much the way it was since I’d left. There were two old framed prints that had hung on the wall all the years I lived there. One depicts a tri-color setter retrieving a grouse, and the other shows a proud boy hiking home with a trio of pheasants (including one hen) slung over his shoulder and a setter at this side. 

These were the pictures I saw every day as I was growing up. And my dad has a couple of old paintings and even some jigsaw puzzles that portray various English, Irish, and Gordon setters and English pointers locked up, oddly enough, on flushing mallards off a pond. Most of this art belonged to my grandfather who loved his spaniels, but the popular sporting art of those long past days was apparently pointing dogs. Whether I noticed it or not, this stuff was part of my daily life and I suppose it’s obvious how it impacted me. Back then I never imagined smartphones or gameboys but I was living large with a jackknife in my pocket and a dog at my side!  

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

A cool old gun

I’ve lately had a hankering to kill a bird with a sweet little shotgun of my Dad’s that’s been in my possession for a while now. I’ve hardly used it and had never taken a bird with it but Dad used to shoot a few ducks and pheasants with it just because he liked it. I’m not a gun snob nor a collector but there is a soft place in my heart for old guns, particularly American made guns. Over the years I’ve gotten hold of a couple of old doubles that I like and expect to use until my shooting days are over, but when I spotted the sweet little pump gun in the back of my gun safe I figured it was just too cool a gun to spend it’s days unused. How Dad came upon it is a story I’ve heard many times. The details can change a bit with each telling and I can’t attest to the accuracy but it’s still a good story.

Shortly after Dad left the Navy he and his brother walked into Haskell’s Hardware and spotted two Winchester Model 42’s on the rack and had to have them. My uncle was shorter than Dad so he took the 26” barreled full choke model. Dad’s has a 28 inch modified choke. The year was 1947 or ’48 and they each paid $37.50 for their little .410’s. Dad proudly showed it to his pheasant hunting companions and they quickly kidded him about his little popgun. Then he turned his spaniel loose and promptly filled his limit without a miss. Over the years I’d heard the two guns had consecutive serial numbers, but my uncle’s 42 was sold or traded or somehow disappeared long ago.

The 42 doesn’t fit me very well and I don’t shoot it very well, but if I bear down and concentrate I can hit with it, sometimes. I took it to the skeet club a few years ago and the boys lined up to try it. Fit or not, it’s fun to shoot but I have guns I do better with and never really thought about taking it out to shoot birds. I wouldn’t consider changing it, but the modified choke is a little too tight for our grouse woods and it’s hard enough to hit with a .410 in the best of conditions. I’ve killed ducks with a single shot .410 when I was a kid and we used lead shot for waterfowl in those days, but those days are long gone.

Paul called and reported moving good numbers of grouse and woodcock near his shack and thought we should get together for a hunt. Sounded good to me and a good chance for the Model 42. With enough chances I may have some luck. I loaded Jack and the little gun in my truck and went for an afternoon in the woods.

We turned Jack and Scarlett loose in good looking cover but the dogs hunted hard with no results for the first half hour and I started to wonder if I was gonna get a chance to try the .410. Even Paul said he was eager to hear the popgun go off. Things started to heat up when Jack pointed off to the left and Scarlett stopped in the cover to the right of the trail we used. As I moved in front of Jack I must have passed close to the grouse that flushed behind me and was fast escaping when I found the safety and swung the gun around to shoot. Thank goodness for a good forearm to grip, I believe that thin little shell-shucker could fly right out of my hands! My shot was way behind and I had to remember to chamber another round so by then it was too late. The grouse flew off unscathed.

When I was in high school I bought a 12 gauge pump-gun, a used 870, and it was my meat and potatoes gun for a long time. I shot small game, ducks, birds, varmints, critters and furbearers with that gun. It was the days before choke tubes so I bought another open choke barrel for it. I shot on a trap league and skeet with it and I still have it. I was pretty good with it but now I have to think to work the action and you know what that means. 

It didn’t take long for Jack to lock-up again and I approached with my finger on the trigger-guard safety button so I wouldn’t have to search for it when the time came. A woodcock went up and offered a very good opportunity climbing for the treetops. I threw the featherweight gun up and shot too quickly and missed. But I jacked another skinny round into the chamber just as the bird topped out and the woodcock went down! The good thing about those skinny little shells is you can fit a lot in your pocket. I was going to need them. Scarlett showed up at the action and beat Jack to make a lovely retrieve. I’d killed a bird with the .410 and was feeling pretty good. We took a break then to water the dogs and I took a couple of photos. The afternoon went on and we had chances at a few grouse and more woodcock.

 I’d started out hoping to kill one bird, but when I dropped another I was suddenly thinking “limit.” And I had chances for a limit, but of course I missed. Again and again.

It was near sundown when we were walking the logging road out and a grouse surprised us from the side and flew straight down the trail. Paul called “take im!” and it was a great chance to kill a grouse with Dad’s little 42. My finger searched painfully long for the safety in its unfamiliar location and when I finally found it I snapped the firing pin on an empty chamber. I’d forgotten to cycle a fresh round after shooting at the last bird! I can still hear Paul chuckling.

That Model 42 is a neat little gun and I had a fun afternoon with it. I can’t say how often I’ll use it – I know I can bag more game with another gun, but… then again, now I’d kinda like to take a grouse with it. 

Monday, October 20, 2014

fall muskies...

A couple of weeks before, we’d had a musky up to the boat that we couldn’t get in the net. It had hit my big articulated dual hook red and black streamer and came halfway out of the water on the take. Minutes later and after a comedy of errors that had me jumping out of the boat, the fish under the boat, and my line wrapped around the boat sawing at my leader, the fish broke off. It was the biggest musky I’ve had on my fly rod.

I had another on later that struck at the bank and held on until it was at the boat. Then it just let go and swam off. A nice musky rolled at Scott’s big fly but no hook-up. Then we watched an even bigger one chase a sucker across the shallows right up to the grassy bank. After a splashing attack the musky swam back to and under our boat with the big sucker crossways in its jaws. Scott's biggest flies were no match to that kind of meat.

Those big predator fish start hitting in the fall, right? Everyone knows that. We saw those four muskies in the morning. Things must be starting to get good. There was still time and we’d get after ‘em again. I went home and tied a couple more jointed flies. Scotty got a bigger net. A plan was devised.

It couldn’t have been a prettier autumn day. We were rigged and ready. Likely the last trip of the year and muskies were the target. Big Autumn Muskies. Yes! Some seven hours later we found the take-out in failing light. Shoulders hurt from casting big flies in stiff breeze. Shoulders hurt from rowing. Sore shoulders from fighting fish? Hands sore from palming the reel? Nope and nope.

The worst day fishing is better than the best day working, we all know that, too. This was the only trip of the year where no one got a strike. Maybe it was fitting. Maybe a good way to end a season’s fishing. Sure was a pretty day, but we were both glad it was over.

 Let’s go hunting.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Opening Day, again

I started hunting when I was a youngster. Dad had me following him around the woods and fields when I couldn’t come close to keeping up, but he was patient and kept the pace easy even if it meant missing out on some shooting. Sometimes we’d walk slowly through the shadowy hardwoods looking and listening for gray and fox squirrels. It became a favorite kind of hunt for me because occasionally I’d get the chance to pick one off a limb with the old Stevens .22 rifle I carried. Compared to trying to hit a fast escaping pheasant with my .410, that squirrel hunting offered a much greater chance for success. In the duck blind I’d get cold and bored but Dad would pour hot chocolate from his red plaid thermos bottle and keep me entertained with hunting stories. We’d eat fried egg sandwiches and toss bits to Queenie or Boots and laugh as they snatched them from the air. The next thing you knew there were birds coming in and shooting to be done. I could hardly hit a thing and I think Dad sometimes gave me credit for his kill, but I loved the excitement of it all and watched proud as our dogs hit the water and worked the cattails for the retrieves. 

I found an old, scratched black and white photo of Dad and me with the first snow goose I shot. Mom proudly took the snapshot with an old Instamatic in our basement. Actually, I'd knocked the goose down with my single shot .410 but it got up and off the water again and Dad finished it with his 16 gauge. It was a great day and bagging the goose was neat, but I sure admired my hunting partner. We were a team and I wonder if I’d become an outdoorsman if I hadn’t had my hero to show me how.

Then came that predictable period when I was between living at my folks’ home and having a home of my own and a few years’ worth of opening days lost some significance. It’s not that I’d forgotten all about them, of course, it just that I was at an age and a state of mind that had me chasing other pursuits. It would be well into the season when it struck me to grab a gun and get out there.

I’ve seen a lot of opening days since then, but it’s been awhile since I’ve lost much sleep in eagerness for that first morning. Though there were days when I greeted the sun at a good bird cover so I could be the first one there, the years have taken some of that edge off. Those types of mornings are pretty much reserved for ducks and deer, anymore. There were years when I was more prepared, too, ready for it to begin. I worked the dogs hard before season and had them and myself in some kind of shape. I shot clays year-round once, but now I haven’t visited the skeet range in years, and my shooting often shows it. I know some good hunters who don’t even bother going out on opening day because the first day of bird season is often too warm, too thick, and too buggy to really enjoy it. But I always go out for at least a little while because, heck, it’s opening day!

I drove up the forest road north of here mostly because it’s close. There is also some good cover with more coming due to some recent logging. I wouldn’t, and couldn’t, began to recount all the grouse and woodcock I’ve taken from the covers along that road. It’s also become well-known and can get kind of busy so I move to different covers as the season goes on. There was frost on my deck that morning and at 9 a.m. the truck thermometer read 36 degrees. It was sunny and cool, unusual for the first day of the season and I was ready to enjoy it.

There’s always that bit of anxiety when heading for a favorite cover, hoping you won’t find another vehicle parked there. I was a little surprised that I saw only two other trucks pulled off on trails, and those were likely bow-hunters. The cover I wanted to hit was open and I backed in carefully ‘cause the long grass hid the row of boulders that block any vehicle from driving up the trail. I hoped the sun would have dried the wet grass some and I took my time getting my gun out and strapping the bell collar on Jack. Still, I felt that common tinge of excitement in my stomach.

Jack took off up the trail and his bell clanged cheerfully ahead. I was wearing my old hunting hat and comfortable grouse boots. The shotgun felt right in my hands and I might have been smiling as we worked up the hill. When I lost track of his bell I hustled ahead to flush a woodcock from the side of the trail. I’d walked right past Jack as he was pointing the bird and never saw him. The season for woodcock isn’t open yet – another opening day coming – so those little birds are safe for now. It took nearly an hour to hit the end of the trail, and Jack had pointed three woodcock on the way in. Now and then I heard a distant shot ring out. That sort of thing always makes me wonder if I should be where they are, or if the shot was a road hunter swatting a grouse off the shoulder. 

I guess it does kind of bug me if someone else is getting shots while I’m hitting the woods and not, but I’ve long known the rewards of fair chase and wing shooting are not measured by numbers. I could have been disappointed at not finding grouse, but I'd heard blue jays and song sparrows, a cool breeze moved the treetops lightly, I looked at deer and fox sign and a flock of geese went over. It was just too nice to be disappointed in anything.

We were getting back towards the truck when Jack’s bell dropped silent in the woods to the left. I took a few steps in and spotted him motionless in the shadows. I was able to get past him when the beat of wings and blur of motion caught my attention. The grouse was high and flashing against the sky between the leafed branches. It might have flushed from a tree, but it didn’t matter. I brought the old gun up and fired once, then twice. I thought it faltered and went down but wasn’t sure. I sent Jack and he took a wrong line, of course, and overshot the bird. Then I heard the wings beating their last on the ground and I knew we were on the board. Jack soon caught the scent and make a fine retrieve. Let the other hunters hear my shots and wish they were where I was!

Molly tried hard for another hour on another cover but we moved only one grouse that I would have shot, and likely hit, a few years ago. I guess I was getting a little tired because when the grouse flew across the trail it caught me sort of flat-footed and I never raised the gun. We followed it into the woods but I heard it escape well out, unseen.

It was past lunchtime by then and I called it a day to head for the Fire Hall spaghetti feed, which was a fine idea in itself. The dogs and I had a good workout and something to show. It was a beauty of a day and a great day to be out. I suppose I’ve killed more birds on some openers, and I’ve probably taken less. Either way, it was a fine opening day and the season is just getting started. Good hunting.

Friday, August 29, 2014


I’d just missed two strikes on my black deer-hair diver when  Jack spun his drift boat around to head downstream. We’d launched the boat only minutes before and Jack rowed us upstream towards the dam to get Scott and me into one of his musky holes. Then we spotted another boat up there we were about to turn around, but not before I shot a few casts to the rocky shoreline. I never saw the fish that struck but they were most surely a couple of the many smallmouth bass that call this river home.

I hadn’t been fishing for a couple of weeks due to a home project, but when that was completed I let Scotty know I was ready and able. Scott got hold of Jack and arraigned to float the river near Jack’s beautiful cabin in the north woods of Wisconsin. Jack phoned me the day before and announced that I’d won an “all-expense paid” float trip down a river full of big muskies and bass. There’s only one answer to that kind of invitation.

 Neither Scott nor I had fished this river before so anticipation was high like it is when looking at new water. Not surprisingly Jack took the oars first and was soon pointing out likely looking spots we should cast to, but this river is so full of rocks and shoreline trees that it’s impossible to hit every good spot. It’s easy to believe there’s fish behind every boulder and under every downed tree.

Jack knows his fishing. It wasn’t that long ago he’d returned from a New Zealand trout fishing adventure to fish Stripers off the east coast and tarpon in Florida. He’s familiar with all the Montana waters I’ve fished and gave some valued tips the first time I went west, and by now he should be in Alaska casting for salmon. He’s smart and personable with a good sense of humor, of which I was reminded of when he stated the expense paid part didn’t include his tip and that I should bring a sandwich. Hoo boy.

River fishing bass, pike, and musky is all about fun. The flies we tie and cast are big and sometime outlandish. Colorful spun deer hair, rubber legs and google eyes, long bucktail and strung hackle tails. No need for magnifiers to tie the hook on to nearly invisible tippets. No worries about the perfect drift. Just enjoy the scenery – there’s always an eagle or osprey, deer or bear, beaver, mink, or otter somewhere along the route – and feel your rod load and the line shooting through your hand knowing the cast is a good one. And a good one lands your fly inches from the bank or cover and you strip it back in plops and jerks and dives on and under the surface. “Nice cast” “Gotta be one there” and “Fish on!” are the phrases of the day. Of course I usually put at least one fly high enough in the overhanging branches to wish there was a pole-saw handy.

Often the strikes are explosive, but when Scott dropped his flowing bucktail diver at the base of a low dock the big musky slid out and grabbed his fly without much commotion. I saw the tight line and bent rod and heard Scott say “heavy fish” before all went slack and the fish was gone! The fly was offered again but that fish had tasted enough feathers for one afternoon. It was the heartbreak of the day, just ask Scott.

All told we landed a good number of smallmouth bass, a couple big enough to brag about, and a couple of northern pike. Zip on the muskies. I’m still amazed at how strong these river fish are and what a fight they put up!

Jack had invited me to stay the night, but I had an early commitment at home in the morning so I elected to sleep in my own bed that night. I drove through Duluth and was settling in for the last hour of driving and I was getting pretty sleepy, always a downfall after a full day outdoors. I had a bottle of 5-Hour Energy somewhere close and I groped around in the dark for it while keeping an eye on the road. I felt the familiar feeling bottle in my hand, opened it and took a big gulp of silicone fly floatant. Yeah, that sort of woke me up.

Back home it’s been cooling off some and there’s the hint of autumn in the air. A few of the maples are taking on that red tint. It’s not far from bird hunting season, now. I’ve been seeing some broods of grouse on the roads and woodcock flying at dawn on my way to work. The dogs can feel it, too, and are whining and dancing around just begging to get out there. The other morning we woke to a cool and rainy day but a good day to give the dogs some work. Molly is always happy to be doing anything and the deadfowl dummies are almost as good to her as real birds. Jack jumped off the tailgate and ran a few yards down the trail to point a brood of grouse before I could get a bell on him. Seemed like a good sign!

 Bird hunting and fall fishing – good times ahead!


Friday, August 8, 2014

finally floatin' again...

I met Brent at the take-out point of one of our favorite floats on one of our favorite rivers. He’d already dropped his Hyde driftboat, along with Scott, miles upstream waiting for us to return and begin our day trip. We’d leave Brent’s rig and trailer here and I’d shuttle us up to the landing. There’re always some logistics involved on these river trips and this seems about the most comfortable and efficient way of getting the boat, gear, and us from one end of the trip to the other.

It’s a little better than a 2 ½ hour drive from my place to the river, so I had a little time to enjoy the morning cruise and sip some coffee on the way. I stopped in town for gas and some gas station coffee – not my preferred drink but the cool coffee shop isn’t open that early in the morning. The early traffic on the highway was pretty light, mostly folks commuting their way to jobs in the iron mines and the usual truck traffic. I always see some deer, and often a fox or coyote along the route. I crossed a few rivers and passed a few lakes on the way and I turned off the highway and took the little gravel frontage road along the Cloquet River, just to check the water and try to remember to set aside some time to fish it. From there I headed to the paper-mill town of Cloquet, which sits along the St. Louis River (go figure) and stop for my second cup at The Warming House coffee shop. I was in no hurry but I only wanted coffee so I pulled into the drive thru and stopped behind the SUV waiting at the window.

I had plenty of time and was enjoying the radio, but in my mind using the drive-thru at a coffee shop should be a relatively quick experience and the lone person in the vehicle ahead reminded me there should be some kind of understood, if unwritten, etiquette about grabbing a cup to go. I mean, if you’re ordering the complicated stuff that’s gonna take a while for the barista to put together, and you’re ordering a number of them for the gang at the office, and you want extra cream for one, no whipped on another, and will decide in a minute or so if you’ll have the peach-lavender cream cheese Danish or the gluten free muffin, you really ought to park in the lot and go inside for that. I shut off my truck when I saw a couple of cups passed out the window but still the SUV didn’t move. I sat listening to the radio and thinking about fishing. A song and a half later the brakes lights of the SUV brought me out of my daydream and a minute later I was on the road with a steaming cup of decent coffee. The little black car that came in behind me for coffee passed me before I got to the stoplights and I had the feeling they were more irritated than I was.

Then it was an hour of freeway driving at the speed of light: around 70-75 miles-per-hour I suppose, something like that. That’s when the radio gets tuned to the first rock station it can find. Classic BTO singing “I can’t drive…Fifty-Five!” None too soon it’s off the freeway and down to the river. What a pretty sight.

Across the river from the landing there’s a little point of land that catches current and makes for a perfect looking run that should hold a nice fish. Just below that there’s a slack water eddy just inside the seam that can’t be passed up. It’s a hopeful place to start fishing and we never pass it up. It doesn’t matter that we’ve never caught a fish there. Never even had a strike. One day one of us will hook a whopper there and it will all make sense. It just takes one.

Scotty took the first round at the oars while Brent cast his white foam blockhead to the shoreline and I worked the water with a deer-hair olive and red toad pattern. It was a perfect morning, sunny and still and we were all happy to be there. Brent scored first, a beauty of a smallmouth, and we all looked upriver after he landed it. It’s nice to catch the first fish in sight of the bridge but we were just beyond it. Brent worked his white foam blockhead long and hard with good effect as it popped along the surface like a venerable bubble machine. I switched flies several times and caught fish on my deer-hair toads and a variation of a Dahlberg Diver I call a froghawk for no good reason, as well as a proven frog pattern blockhead. Scott spent most of the day tossing his big musky flies, hoping for the 40 incher which would be a good fish for that water.

I first fished this river with Scott. It was all about the smallmouth bass, then. I used my 6 wt. rod and cast my hand painted poppers that I now call cute little things. It’s still about the bass, but the pike started nipping our leaders and somewhere along the way the muskies living in the river gained our attention. Heavier rods and lines were in order to toss bigger flies attached to wire leaders. I buy cheap flipflop sandals and chop them up to make flies. Fly boxes look like briefcases now. And is it ever fun!

The musky came with a violent strike on one of my deer-hairs. I was in the back of the boat and got a glimpse of shape and called it a pike. Brent had a better look and announced “No pike, it’s a SKIE!” and the fight was on. The fish cleared water several times trying to shake free and I was having a ball playing it. We had it near the boat several times before we could net it, and we saw the leader crossways in its mouth the way an untrained pup bites the leash the first time he feels it. Glad to have that wire leader. We didn’t measure it but it wouldn’t make the 40 inches – still a good fish like they all are and after a couple of quick photos it was back in the water.

I’ve caught a few muskies before but only a couple fly fishing. I know they are in the river, but I don’t expect them. Even on a river known for muskies I was surprised when I caught one. They’re the kind of fish you keep track of, though it’s easy for me to keep track of the small number I’ve caught. I recently watched a video about a couple of well-known Minnesota fly fishing musky hunters. Being interviewed they were asked how many muskies they’ve caught. Both were vague about the actual number, one said “less than 50, but I’m workin’ on it,” but I know he knows the exact fish that will take him over the half-century mark. I guess I could honestly say the same thing.

We kind of goaded Scott about casting his arm off with his out-sized musky flies while I landed “his” fish on a #2 hook, but that’s fishing and we all know it. Besides, he’s a skilled angler and has landed well more muskies than I have – but I’m working on it!

No one wants to see a good day end, but by the time we get to the take-out, we’re all kinda tired. I know my casting gets pretty sloppy – I suppose I don’t practice enough – and on these trips we’re either casting or rowing, which involves its own skill set, so it’s a real active day on the river. There’s nothing better. 

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

trippin' on trout

I didn’t recognize my bag when it first appeared on the luggage carousel. Oh, it was the right color all right, but there was an unfamiliar pattern over the bright purple duffel that looked almost like a floral print. From a distance, that is. Apparently, my bag had fallen off the airport luggage wagon and landed in a tire’s path. It must have scrunched down the side of the bag pretty hard to leave such a print, but other than a dime-sized hole there was no real damage. Besides some clothing and sundries, my fishing gear was in the bag. Waders, boots, three reels, fly boxes, etc., along with a few pounds of venison jerky and a good bottle of bourbon that, had any of it not survived, would have caused a real hardship for the next few days.

A bad omen to the start of a fishing trip? Perhaps, but only if I’d lingered on it. As it was, I forgot about it in eagerness to go fishing and tossed the bag into the car for the trip to the river.

It’s kind of neat being in a Montana airport carrying rod tubes. Most everyone knows what you’re up to, and strangers smile when you walk by. On your way to the river folks will ask where you’re heading and wish you luck. On the way home with sunburned arms and faces, a heavy stubble of whiskers and a tired but satisfied look in your eyes, they ask how the fishing was. You may look like a bum, but you don’t look like a terrorist.

Scott and I met Brent, John, and Brett at camp. The trio of them road-tripped out, pulling the boats, the grub, and the beer. It didn’t take long to get on the river. The water was higher, faster, and colder than last year. Wade fishing wasn’t as easy, but wasn’t as tough as we’d been led to believe. Bugs weren’t hatching much and rising fish were rare, but we found them. The routine was feast down a big breakfast, launch the boats and drift weighted nymphs to a likely looking bend or point or island where we’d get out and wade the banks slinging our rigs upriver to dead drift them past and down. Fun and easy stuff with snowcapped mountains in the background. When we found fish feeding on top we’d switch to dry flies and have a go at them. We found one hotspot where the trout were rising almost non-stop and spent a sunny afternoon taking turns casting dries to them. Sitting in a warm grassy meadow eating lunch and watching your partners trying to choose the right fly, then make the right cast, and then whooping encouragement when a fish was hooked was almost as much fun as the catching itself. There were some downright hilarious moments, too, but you had to be there to appreciate them. We caught trout up and down the river with every method we tried, beautiful browns and rainbows, but that one afternoon will be remembered for a long time.

It was nearly dark each night we left the river and returned to camp for supper. Scott’s fresh eggs were the breakfast hit, and Brent’s venison backstrap with John’s garden asparagus won the dinner award. We sipped whiskey and told stories until one by one, we drifted away to bed. Before I hit the rack, however, I’d spend a few minutes outside, in silence, just looking at the Montana sky – and give thanks.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

gone fishin'

It’s a beautiful Wednesday morning. The sun is rising and will soon melt the light frost covering my deck and yard. It’s one of the few mornings we’ve had lately that wasn’t gloomy. The weatherman, however, tells us we may get more rain this afternoon. No surprise there. It seems like it’s been raining ever since it stopped snowing! I’m skipping work today and pretty soon I’ll go to town and have brunch with Dad, but for now the dogs are romping around the yard, the coffee is hot and strong and I’m thinking about the weekend coming. And fishing.

Gierach said, “I have to go fishing, it’s my job.” C’mon man, how does that make the rest of us feel? I, for one, am darned envious if not outright crazy jealous! It gets worse, too, when he goes on to explain how his travel costs, fishing gear, rods, vehicle, and about everything else he has or uses is a tax write-off. What?! So, I have to wonder, does all his fishing cost him anything? I’m a simple guy and I don’t really know how this write-off stuff works because I what I can write-off is basically, well… nothing. Still, the idea of travelling the country fly fishing the best of the best for a living is a fine and worthy fantasy.

Saturday I’m heading for Montana with good friends and we’ll be doing our best to catch some trout. I’m doing the usual procrastinating about packing, and when I get serious about it I’ll end up throwing stuff in my duffel and trying to figure out what I’m forgetting, i.e. find my polarized glasses and fishing hat in the clutter of my truck. And I know where I left my camera, I wonder if it’s still there? That’s how I do it. We’re taking plenty of food, plenty of gear (despite what I forget), and two drift boats. Last night I was checking out my reels and tonight I’m figuring to condense my fly boxes and take only what I’ll think I’ll need. I’ll likely be wrong and end up buying the right flies when we get there, but that’s part of the fun and I enjoy looking through a fly shop. The fly shop folks are friendly and helpful, even though they probably spot me as a clueless tourist, but it’s guys like me that keep them in business, so it’s a mutually beneficial relationship.

That’s it for now, and what’s that they say? Oh, yeah – Tight Lines!


Wednesday, April 23, 2014

anticipation is making me crazy

I’ve heard it said, plenty of times, the anticipation is often better than the actual event. I suppose that could be true if it all went wrong, or the anticipation was so unrealistic the genuine real deal had little chance of success from the start. Maybe I’m just an old curmudgeon, unimaginative sort, but the positive action trumps the anticipation every time. I mean, is dreaming about it better than… well, you know?

If there was ever a time for anticipation it has been the last few months. There’s nothing else but the expectation and hope of better things ahead and unless you’re willing and able to grab some time and money and get the heck out of here for a while, all that you can do is wait out the winter and embrace the belief that spring will surely arrive. Sometime.

A fellow at work took off for Texas for a week, claiming his wife was going stir crazy and making him the same. She’s from the Lone Star State and being cooped up in Embarrass, Minnesota during a long and brutal winter was just too much. I didn’t hurt that they have family down there and Roy was able to sneak out and kill a couple of turkeys while everyone was still in bed. The trip cheered the wife and seems worth it because she’s been showing up at work with fresh baked cookies, muffins, and biscuits a couple of times a week.

Anticipation got the best of our top mechanic, too, so he escaped the cold and snow for Mexico, where he hired a boat and caught an impressive sailfish, a few tuna, and some other ocean fish I can’t remember the names of. He came back tanned and happy, too, but the weekly snowstorms he returned to are bringing him back to reality the tough way.

My fiddle playing buddy, Flea (of course that’s not his real name – nicknames are big around here) couldn’t wait it out any longer, either. He’s been making numerous hour long drives to Lake Superior to fish for Kamloops and Cohos. He’s caught a few, but half the time the wind blows the drift ice in and there’s no fishing to be had. So he visits the fly shops, which isn’t such a bad way to spend some time, anyway.

There’s actually a light at the end of the tunnel. It’s warmed up some and the snow in the yard is half melted off. The creeks and rivers are about all open and running out of their banks. Easter Sunday was the nicest day we’ve had yet, a sunny day with temps reaching the 60’s. There are some ducks around, almost suddenly as if they were just south waiting for the fields and ditches to flood. I’ve yet to hear a grouse drumming but I see a few on the road every day.

Speaking of looking forward to something, in less than a month I expect to be with some friends casting ridiculously tiny flies to disproportionately sized trout on a beauty of a Montana river. The guys are all into the anticipation to the point of e-mailing photos of flies to each other. It’s great! Being on the river, however, will beat the heck out of wishing we were on it.

 We each have our special contributions to bring. I’m ready.

Friday, March 7, 2014

... we thought last winter was tough

Last November there was a tangible reduction in the number of mature whitetail bucks to be found during hunting season. The area DNR Wildlife Manager related that the number of adult male deer in the fall correlates directly to the severity of the preceding winter, and explained that the deer around here lack any meaningful agriculture to supplement winter diets and survive until spring mainly on stored fat and low quality browse. Ok, that makes sense and last winter was bad, but this winter is worse so far and we all hope it doesn’t last as long. I see young deer daily, mostly fawns enjoying the easy going on plowed back roads or standing on hillsides belly deep in snow. Fuzzy, teddy bear faced and looking healthy this late in the winter. They’re finding food somewhere, even though there is something like 50 inches of snow on the ground. And it’s cold. The first few days of March registered temps of -24, -27, and -32 degrees. Yeah, that’s below zero. This morning when I left for work the thermometer read a balmy 17 below. However, they say, it’s going to warm up soon.

So this evening I broke the red wax seal on a bottle of Makers Mark and am sitting here comfortably waiting for the warm-up. In my daily travels, besides the deer, I see very little wildlife other than birds. I think there is just too much snow, soft dry powdery snow, for the critters to move about in. There are few tracks, as well. But I can’t help thinking the wolves are laying low, biding their time ‘til there’s a hard crust on the snow and the pickin’s will be easy. “Yikes!” for the deer.

What will probably turn out to be a very hard winter for deer has certainly been a fine year for the grouse, with plenty of snow for deep roosts it’s hard to imagine how it could be better. I see the grouse, too, in the tops of tall aspens and alongside the road shoulders seemingly oblivious to the harsh weather and patiently waiting for the snow to melt from the drumming logs. When the temps warm during the day and the snow crusts at night the grouse will be in fine shape to rough it out to springtime.

Deep snow has made the firewood cutting a real job of work and I don’t need any excuses to stay indoors in this sub-zero weather, so I’ve had fun at the fly tying vise, putting together everything from tiny BWO’s to big, bushy pike flies.

There are many of us who enjoy wintertime sports and activities, but you’d be hard put to find anyone around here who hasn’t had enough of this weather. Fledge and I took snowmobiles into a remote lake to fish for lake trout through the ice. The ride in was fun and the scenery gorgeous, but we talked mainly about how long the winter would last. Fledge is looking to start a new lab pup and is as eager for spring as anyone. 

Ski resorts closed – too cold to ski. Poor turnout at the big ice-fishing contest – too cold to ice fish. Too cold for cold weather events. Uh, well… all right, then. Schools closed, work didn’t. The dogs are crazy bored, but it’s seldom warm enough to have them out for more than a few minutes. Last year it was winter until May. Spring field trials were canceled, there was no spring dog training and even fishing season was postponed. Let’s hope we don’t have another like that!

It takes some imagination to move into the right frame of mind and think about fishing when all the water around here is under three feet of ice that’s under four feet of snow, but the Makers Mark helps, and after months of moving snow and trying to stay thawed, the thought of slipping into the water on a pleasant summer day warms me better than the ticking woodstove.

5 March 2014

Monday, February 3, 2014

communication is key...

I received a note in the mail from a buddy of mine. The message was handwritten on a neat note card and enclosed in the envelope alongside a short anecdote cut from a magazine. Outwardly, and not surprisingly, you could say the story was about fishing. But fishing stories on their own – and after you’ve read enough of them – can get pretty dry so of course there was far more to it than that. There were elements of nostalgia and melancholy, with flavor of longing for times past and some regret of the way things are shaping up for the future. It’s about a simple and down-to-earth way of life on a river that’s becoming complicated with techno gadgets and high-powered fuel burning machinery that’s hard for folks like me to understand the appeal.

 I’m reminded of a time many years ago when I was 16 years old and I thought my dirt bike would be a great way to get into a particular trout stream. I stopped at a bend in the trail when I met an old fisherman and his wife hiking out with their rods in their hands and wicker creels hung from their shoulders. Over the idling engine I asked the old-timer how the stream looked down there. He replied in no uncertain terms that the stream was beautiful and it was a shame I was about to ruin it with that damned noisy dirt bike. Well, even though I was nothing more than a young shithead, I was raised to respect my elders and that old fisherman looked like the kind of man I wouldn’t mind becoming. So I turned the bike around and left. I knew he was right and I learned me a lesson that day that stuck. Since that time I’ve spent many a day trying to get from here to there unnoticed, silently and leaving no sign. I wouldn’t want it any other way.

Another thing that struck me about the note was, well, the note itself. I’m old enough to remember when writing on paper was the standard form of correspondence. I used to trade letters with a handful of friends comparing hunting and fishing seasons, sharing life’s joy and troubles, and just keeping in touch through the postal service. We took a bit of pride in the note cards we found and mailed, and you could tuck a prince nymph or grouse feather or photo inside for that something a little extra special. When you wrote something it took some time, and thought. It meant something because it was going to last awhile. Sometimes you’d type them out on a typewriter if you remember what those are. When the computers and printers came out we wasted plenty of paper trying to get the printing on the right side of the card. But we kept at it and it all seemed right. That was the beginning to what we have now, I suppose, but I can’t or don’t keep up with today’s forms of electronic instant communication and if I’m missing out on something, I’m ok with it so far. I’m a simple guy and when I get to wondering if I need an upgrade in communications I recall the words of an old Greg Brown song “I don’t need to read the news, or hear it on the radio. I see it in the faces of everyone I know.” That sort of thing strikes close to me.

A neat friend in town laughs at my old cell phone and wonders if I’ll ever upgrade. Another claims I am unreachable and thus unreached. If I got with the modern world I could shoot messages, twitters and photos and whatever else to them daily, maybe hourly. As it is I might see these folks a couple of times a month. To me, face-to-face is worth the wait. 

When I played music with the band I had access to our Facebook page so I know what it is, but I guess I’m a little too private to have a personal site. Anyway, I have that old cell phone, and e-mail and even this blog. Heck, I’m so easy to reach I’m amazed by it.

So I’m encouraged by the note I received. I enjoyed the story that came with it and I didn’t need a battery powered screen to read it. He could have easily e-mailed me the link, I suppose. Don’t get me wrong, I know the internet is important and here to stay and will keep evolving (how would I be doing this without it?) but there’s nothing wrong with being a little old fashioned from time to time. Maybe it will become popular to go retro and use the postal service again, you know, what was old is now new? Whaddya think? Use more paper, cut more pulp, make more grouse and deer habitat. Seems reasonable. And if you’re looking for a bargain send an envelope across the country. It will get there in a couple of days for the price of a stamp! Less than the cost of a cup of coffee. That’s a deal.

OK, I’m kinda off topic here, but it’s a deep, dark, cold, cold winter night and it affects us. Stay warm. 

Friday, January 3, 2014

Happy New Year

When it’s as cold as it’s been, ten degrees either way doesn’t mean much. There were only a few December days that didn’t record below zero temperatures and the New Year is starting out the same. The few days it was a bit warmer I took advantage of the snow and my XC skis, but day after day of bitter cold makes staying indoors pretty easy.

The holidays are over. Those annual couple of months of mostly craziness that I wonder if we’ll ever get used to. I could be unaffected by a lot of it, but even I have to do a little shopping and when I enter a big store filled to capacity with bargain hunters I get a little claustrophobic. Of course I’d prefer to patronize cool little specialty shops and I do when I can, but where I live the choices are limited. It used to be worse; there was a time when I’d feel a little crowded and break into a sweat and even feel a little nausea. When you live a lifestyle of generally avoiding people you’ll even pass the grocery store for a much needed bottle of milk if there are too many cars in the lot. I’ve become much more tolerant of it all, however, I suppose it’s the years under my belt – but I still wish that person behind me in line would keep their damn cart away from me.

The holidays have their moments, though. Little breaks from the hectic when you spent some memorable time with family and friends, or eat something remarkable, or receive a meaningful unexpected gift.  No, I don’t like the crowds, but I cherish my friends.

Still, now that it’s over and the decorations are down, the cookies are gone, it’s a new year and we’re all back to some kind of routine at work, I can’t help but think, “What now?”

I kind of look forward to lazing around the house in this weather. You know how it is, when the weather is decent you feel like you should be outside doing something – at least I do, and staying inside gnaws at my senses and I get a guilty impression that I’m wasting time. Soon enough I’ll have to take the chainsaw and look for next year’s firewood, but for now reading and fly tying are favorite activities and are important in their own rite. It usually takes cold winter evenings to get me to finally give the shotguns and rifles a thorough cleaning before locking them away for the year, and I finished that task last week.

I’ve always liked sporting art and I’ve been known to stand distracted gazing at a wildlife print. I have some favorites of my own, but a couple of months ago I was offered the chance to purchase an original painting of my long gone setter, Birchwood Cully. Cully was not only a winning field trial dog, but he was one heck of a gun dog as well, pointing and retrieving to a standard that I’ve hoped for in the dogs I’ve had since. The account of how the painting came about is a bit complicated, but the artist worked from a photo and though it was not actually offered for sale, when I saw an e-mail copy I contacted her and now it hangs on my wall. And it’s awesome.

Sitting here warm and sipping from my snipe glass, it’s easy to recall the past season with pleasure and gratitude. Floating and fishing new water was a high point and if all goes well I expect to do even more of it this year. Gunning grouse was far better than predicted and it was great to find good numbers of both grouse and woodcock, and while I’ve often quipped that my setter Jack was the kind of bird dog that makes you appreciate fishing, he really stepped up his game this past fall and did a fine job. Molly had her chance with grouse and a few ducks and I’ll long remember shooting December pheasants over her and watching her carry the big birds through the deep snow.

Maybe I didn’t catch that arm-long brown trout, and that big bass evaded me again. I did experience some priceless outdoor times that I hope to see again, and besides, they’re all trophies to me. It’s a good life. Happy New Year!