Monday, December 19, 2011

A Beacon of Suck

Have you ever had the wind knocked out of you?  Have you been emotionally crushed by failing stupendously in an audition or interview?  Ever sit dumbstruck on the couch or in the stands as your team gives up the winning score with no time left on the clock?  I certainly have.  More often than I care to remember on all of the above.  If you have too, and you don't wish to relive those feelings, think seriously before becoming a hunter or fisher.

Sure, there are the halcyon days, fish and game around every corner and under every rock, the camaraderie and food and sleepy, hypnotizing camp fires.  But there are also the missed shots and lost fish.  The ones that stick with you forever, that pop into your half-awake mind, and keep you from falling asleep.  The ones that mark a geographical place indelibly in your mind, so that every time you pass it, you think, "there's the spot where I screwed the pooch on that one."

There is a short stretch of bank in Gibb's Chute, between the Mississippi River and Lake Onalaska, that haunted me for more than a decade.  I lost the biggest, baddest smallmouth I have ever seen at the end of my own line there.  I can see the red eye and tiger stripes now, glistening in the spray of his acrobatics, six pounds of pissed off riverine muscle and power.  He broke off at the boat, and before disappearing forever, leapt one more time behind me, my black Heddon Torpedo still dangling from his jaw.  The angling equivalent of flipping me the bird.  I'm secretly glad we got rid of the fishing trailer up there so I don't have to go back, and commit seppuku.

The bad ones feel like you've had the wind kicked out of you during an awful interview while watching your team fumble away a lead at the last possible minute.  Disappointment and self-loathing get together, and conceive a shame baby in your stomach.

Not all shots or lost fish.  Some shots happen so fast or were so ill-conceived to begin with, they don't have the investment to make you sick.  You learn this quickly as a grouse hunter.  Often as not, you're firing at where you think the bird might be through the spruces or balsalms, instead of actually seeing it.  Those misses are dismissed out of hand.  You're just happy when one magically tumbles to the forest floor.  Upland shotgunning is very often like that.  I'm still surprised all the time when a sharply swerving woodcock suddenly explodes in a puff of feathers, and falls through the willow thicket.

I can get excited over big bluegills and perch, but losing a few here and there doesn't really rate on the soul crushing disappointment scale.  That's probably part of the reason I don't fish for them much anymore.  There are no stakes involved, other than whether or not I have to clean the deep fryer.

  Look very, very closely at the other end.  You won't see the coyote because he kept right on running.

I was a great practitioner of missing from an early age.  A prodigy, even.  Pigeons, chipmunks, and squirrels often remained unscathed in our yard, snickering at the boy who couldn't shoot, safe on their perches thirty feet away.  Cans and baby pumpkins swiped from the garden sat unmoving and inert on the fence rail, unfazed by my attempts to murder them.  It taught me humility and the value of practice.  It also taught me not to shoot dime store pellet guns with any faith.  That thing was a pile of crap.  When I finally learned how to sight in a gun, I tried to get that one on paper.  It was given away or lost shortly after that.  No point in sighting in a gun that sprays pellets around like a drunken Mardi Gras reveler chucking beads all over the place.

As I grew older, under the guidance of Dad, I eventually became a fairly good rifle shot with my .22.  He paid me a bounty on woodchucks from the garden and Grackles from the bird feeders.  $1 for the woodchucks and $.25 for the Grackles.  On a good day, I was pulling down $2.25 after school.  Just enough for bait and a couple cold sodas for Josh and I.

I went on to win some Boy Scout and NSSF rifle shooting competitions with that little gun.  Not exactly Olympic gold, mind you, but you get the idea.  I was 14, seven feet tall and bullet proof with that rifle in my hands.  I can still look through that Lyman target peep sight, and be immediately calmed.  Like some people looking at a famous painting in a museum, I guess.  The squirrels no longer paused to mock and chatter.  Mostly, they ended up as pot pie, one of the first dishes I ever learned to cook on my own.  Or skinned and gutted on a stick over a campfire when we wanted to play Rambo.  Not delicious.   Even when Brian and I go after them to this day, the standing bet applies.  First guy to make anything but a head shot buys the beer.  I seldom have to buy.

Still, I miss.  Seemingly all the damn time.  We all do, at least those of us who get out there enough.  I can't think of anyone I've ever consistently fished or hunted with who hasn't missed a shot or pulled a bonehead move to lose a fish.  It happens.  The big fish comes unbuttoned or the deer doesn't tip over, and there is this pause.  Time freezes while your stomach balls up in a monkey knot, and then, if you're with friends, the jeering begins almost immediately.  Not that we want our buddies to fail.  Quite the opposite, in fact.  It's more a form of intimacy, for lack of a better term.  You wouldn't laugh at a stranger if he missed, or a client, but when one of the boys doinks an easy lay-up it off the rim, look out.  That's all part of the fun.

Of course, this is all leading up to the story of my miss yesterday.

I met up with my buddy Rick to do a little coyote calling, our first trip of the year together.  I like hunting with Rick because he brings great coffee.  I've successfully given up almost all coffee, but certain concessions to sanity have to be made in the shivering pre-dawn darkness.

We'd made two sets with no action by the time the sun was fully up, and were set up at our final calling station of the morning.  Rick was fifty yards downwind of me, I was manning the mouth calls.  Foregoing the howling we'd tried in our earlier spots, I set right in with the bunny distress.  After a few rounds of dying rabbit, a coyote appeared out of the blue.  I hadn't seen him come in, as so often happens, but there he was, popped out from the edge of the frozen cattails, just staring in our general direction.

We tried and tried to coax him across the little creek that separated us, but he was having none of it.  Cottontail distress, pup yelps, barking; he was a rock, firmly planted and unwavering.  I knew he wasn't going to hang out all day, so I decided to take the shot.  It was fairly long (187 yards on the range finder I won in our deer camp raffle), but certainly a make-able shot for the trendy Ruger .204.  I had a good rest, plenty of time to get comfortable and take a few cleansing breaths, no wind to speak of.  In through the nose, out through the mouth.  Don't strangle the gun.  Relax.   I held and felt my heartbeat and squeezed.

Nothing.  That gorgeous dark gray dog just turned and trotted back into the marsh.  That was it.  And there I was, a shining beacon of suck in the soft morning light.  I had no idea where or how I missed as that sinking feeling set it.

Of course, we walked down to check for hair and blood.  Nada.  Rick tore me a good-natured new one on the ride home, as is the right and duty of any hunting buddy.  I wouldn't have expected anything less, and I'm look forward to returning the favor the next time he shanks one into the rough.  

Thursday, December 15, 2011

And Darkness Fell

A sniper mission, alone in the cold and dark.  No back up, no buddy, just a hunter and his tools under the stars.

I'll shuffle out of the bunk at 3am tomorrow morning, and rub the sleep from my eyes.  Donning camouflage that has been cleansed of human scent, I'll make my way through the night to match wits with the ever-cautious and intelligent coyote, my headlamp filtered red to safeguard my night vision and position.

There's an intensity to it that you cannot find in any other type of hunting in this part of the world.  Calling a predator in, with those fangs and sinister eyes, that demeanor of a killer, will make your hair stand up a little and make sure the ticker is in good working order.

I'm no expert coyote hunter, but I sure enjoy getting out there.  I like it because it is often a cold and solitary endeavor for me.  A test.  Can I force myself to get up and out in the dark, minimize my presence, and convince a wild carnivore that I'm a delectable morsel of bunny or mouse?  I like it because I see so few others doing it.  Anytime I can feel I'm just a bit on the fringe is fine by me.  Mostly, I like being out in the dark.

Darkness changes everything.  I've deer hunted out of the same tree stand location for two seasons now.  That walk in to it in the dark is still a little adventure every time.  I don't use flagging tape or reflectors because I can simply walk along the creek, but not being able to see more than a dozen feet adds a bit of mystery.  Things go bump in the night.  Your sense of direction can go a little sideways when creeping your way slowly through dense understory.  There is a quick moment when just a tiny creeping doubt sets in.  I'm never going to get lost walking in to that stand, it's easy enough that if I ever did I could never show my face in camp again, but that quick second of indecision in the dark still happens sometimes.  It's a welcome rush.

Distances grow in the dark.  It's easy to estimate where you are and how far you've come when the sun is out and the world is alive.  At night, with few visual clues, the trail can stretch and meander in ways you didn't think possible.  Familiar stumps suddenly take on the form of bears.  The stream that is supposed to be right here isn't.  Unnoticed initially, the wind sweeps around the compass, suddenly convincing you that you're walking in the exact wrong direction.  It all takes more patience and steadiness to get through than walking in the light, which is exactly why it is often more fun and rewarding.

Wade fishing a stream at high noon can be tenuous at times.  Moving water obscures deep holes, rocks and boulders lurk unseen, waiting for that one misplaced step.  Currents slink and flow in seeming harmony, lulling you into false confidence until they are suddenly tearing at your legs.  Now do it with a blindfold on.  The topwater fishing can be downright outstanding, but again, fortitude plays a role in dealing with falls and tangles in the dark.  One thing remains the same, however.  When the fall does come, and it will, get that rod up in the air.  A broken tailbone heals, absurdly spendy mangled graphite does not.  I know.  While sitting on an inflatable doughnut for a few weeks can be demeaning, replacing a fly rod is worse. 

The exact same stretch of water, a beckoning beauty in the daylight, becomes a dangerous, if intoxicating, mistress when the sun goes down.



Night has been driven from our lives for the most part.  A lot of us sometimes forget that at home or in town.  The sun goes down, street lights come on, and we carry on our merry way.  Traffic and signage, nightlights and the warm glow of the TV, all lead us down a path to thinking that night is simply a continuation of day.  Not too long ago people didn't live like that.  Daylight broke, we labored away to scratch out an existence on the land, the sun went down, and we retired to our sod house or teepee or log cabin to sleep the sleep of the dead. 

When I find myself out in the wilds at night I make it a point to enjoy the things I can't see or hear in my illuminated nighttime life most of the time.  A novice camper or night fisher is often taken aback, mouth hanging agog, at the number of stars that are up there once you get out from under the quilt of mercury vapor lamps.  Add the chorus of crickets often hidden by traffic noise or the ephemeral drapery of the northern lights, and the city dweller will often become suddenly still.  Mesmerized and quiet for the first time in too long.  Spellbound.  I'm a little jealous of that, and try to remember to force myself to take in the beauty, even when I've seen it before or I'm on a mission.

I will be on a mission tomorrow morning.  I will creep through the darkness.  I will melt into the landscape, and let hunter become prey.  And I will take in the subdued beauty of it all.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

The Day the Bacon Died

We should all endeavor to shun the Interstate highways a little more often.

I know, you have to get where you're going, always late, always go go go, but doing so numbs us to all that we're missing out in the country.  We sometimes complain about living in "Fly-over Land" here in the mid-west, how the coasts ignore us, how far Washington is removed from the problems on the ground.  Then we put on the blinders, set the cruise, and bee-line it to our destination, and we're doing the same thing to our own state.

Dad preferred back-roading, and therefore, so do I.  It's all about what you grew up with.  Of course there are times when hitting the blue highways is not the answer.  When I'm heading up to camp it's four lanes and 75 on the speedometer as far as they will take me.  Or sometimes you're at the end of one of those interminable road trips, all ragged and jumpy on sleep deprivation and caffeine.  That's a time set the cruise, and follow the herd back to the shack.  But other times you just have to leave the herd aside.

Highway 35, as it traces it's way alongside the Mississippi River from Prescott to Prairie du Chien is one of my favorite drives in Wisconsin.  All the waterfowl and river panoramas not withstanding, I never would've found those fresh cheese curds, still warm and super squeaky, if it weren't for that drive.  It takes more than an hour longer than I-94 coming back to Madison from the Twin Cities, but it's completely worth it.  And I can stop in Pepin, and shoot the breeze with Adam, which is always nice.

I seldom drive back from camp or Brian's house, my two main hunting and fishing destinations, by the same route.  The Gazateer is my loyal companion.  You are somewhat limited by the number of roads, but there's always that wonderfully enticing moment at a stop sign in the sticks...

Ah, what the hell, let's see what's over this way...

It used to drive Erin insane, never being able to figure out exactly where we were or how far we were from home.  The truth is, sometimes I didn't know either, and that's part of the fun.  Heading, say, southeast-ish until you stumble upon a road or village you recognize is good fun.  At least for me.

There are rustic roads, beautiful vistas, and cool historical markers that I always try to stop and read; but the real appeal for me is the unknown.  What could be around the next bend -- just like floating a river.

It does feel like you're going to see more wildlife most of the time because you are going slower, but I'm not sure about that one.  You do have to pay more attention to curves and slow-moving tractors suddenly blipping up out of nowhere, so you might actually be looking in the fields less.  It is easier to zone out on a massive ribbon of concrete and re-bar, coasting along with the flow and peeping for turkeys and deer.  More research is obviously required.

The crown jewels of these jaunts off the main drag are the little food producers you stumble upon.  If you're tailgating me when I lay new eyes on an apple orchard or indie cheesemaker (and you will be because I drive as fast as a Revolutionary War vet with bad cataracts), you best be paying attention.  I'm gonna clamp on the binders late, and fishtail into that gravel driveway.

Which is precisely how we found the greatest bacon I've ever had.  Brian discovered a tiny general store out past the middle of creation on one of his trips off the four-lane.  Nothing more than a small converted gas station, it was a gold mine.  It was a bit "Country Austere" for the city crowd, if that's a thing, and that was fine with us.  The meat counter was fully stocked, there was a crock full of stunningly huge and delicious pickles, and the owners were behind the counter, always ready to answer questions, slice up a hunk of cow or pig, or simply chat.  It was so small and poorly advertised that I went there for years before I learned the name -- Johnstown Food Center.

And the bacon.  Smokey, perfectly salted,... I'm gonna say it... sultry slabs of gorgeous bacon.  The single most delicious slices of swine to ever pass the lips of this humble scribe.  They cured and smoked it on-site, sliced it to your specifications, and wrapped it for you on the spot.  I don't know the owners, so I can't say for certain, but I'm pretty sure the stooped gentleman with the shock of white hair toiling over the stainless machines in back was running the show, and that at some point in his long life, he'd stumbled upon Aladdin's Lamp, and asked for the world's perfect bacon recipe.  It was, to employ an overused term of the day to it's full meaning, epic.  Flat-out porcine perfection.

We're all familiar with the current and surprisingly long-lived bacon fad.  And I'm all for some loving on salty sweet smoked pork belly.  Bacon can be downright sexy, no doubt about it.  But, as often happens in a craze, there is an awful lot of racing to the bottom out there -- lots of truly loathsome, heinous bacon.  Chemically injected, liquid smoked crap.  The cheap shit in every grocery store and quickie-mart.  That's not what we're talking about here.  It's not even in the same league.  We're talking about bacon that made you pause, bacon that left you wondering where it had been your entire life.

Johnstown Food Center is closed now, lost to the economy and aging proprietorship I'm assuming, so we were forced to go to another bacon purveyor for deer camp (if you're still buying grocery store bacon or not making your own, why are you even still reading this?).

Maplewood Meats is another fine meat shop a little off the beaten path.  We've had our venison processed there for years, and everything we've ever ordered has been excellent.  The German summer sausage and brats are particularly outstanding, and the bacon is very, very good.  2011 National Grand Champion Bacon, as a matter of fact, but all the boys in camp agree, it can't quite beat the "Gas Station Bacon," as it's known in camp, that we lost from Johnstown Food Center.  I still don't know what Don McLean was talking about when the marching band refused to yield, but I know the day the bacon died.

You wanna get nuts?  Let's get nuts.  Bacon and Egg Toast Cups.

Farm fresh eggs obviously go hand in hand with quality bacon.  If you're gonna drive out of the way, and pull a few extra bucks when you go to the hip for dazzling bacon, why would you sully the entire operation with pasty, bland eggs from the grocery store?  Don't be a chump.

Spotting a "Fresh Eggs" sign on the side of the road raises almost as much excitement in me as spotting an Ivory-Billed Woodpecker would in a southern birder.  For some reason the radio or Ipod goes off immediately because I'm apparently unable to make a simple turn into a driveway with music playing.  That is followed by the slightly uncomfortable walk up the the farmer's door.  They put the sign out, they want to sell the eggs, but it still feels a little like trespassing somehow.

The eggs themselves can vary quite a bit.  Obviously there's the shell colors, looking like they were died subdued browns, blues, and greens for some kind of camouflage Easter.  Shell thickness can also be an adventure too.  Sometimes they break when you startle them with a sudden glance, more often you need a tack hammer to make a dent in them, at least compared the the dainty white shells found at the store.

Taste varies as well, depending on how and what the chickens have been eating.  This is not a concern with store bought eggs because, obviously, there is no taste.  Luckily, I have a buddy who raises chickens, they produce for him consistently, and the eggs are delicious.  Deeply lustrous yolks that float on fluffy whites in the frying pan.  I love them soft cooked with that enchantingly gooey burnt orange yolk just barely oozing.  God Bless America, and pass the AED.

I believe at last count there were roughly 32 gajillion small creameries and cheese makers in rural Wisconsin.  In some parts of the state, you can barely crest a knoll without seeing a sign for fresh curds.  We can cover the love of independent cheese wizardry in another post.  A guy could drive for days living on the craft of these artisans alone.  And fresh strawberries taken back to a parent's home to be converted into glorious jams and pies I happily trade chores for.  The caramel goodness of apple cider, freshly squeezed in an antique press from apples you just picked.

The opportunities for roadside ambrosia are nearly limitless, but almost none of them can be found following nose-to-tail like a drone down the Interstate highway.

Update 11/7/2013:  The lords of bacony goodness have chosen to shine upon us once again!  Johnstown Food Center is back in business, and my buddy Frisbee says the bacon is just as spectacular as it had been when they shut their doors.

I find myself preposterously giddy at the chance to taste again bacon that I've been unable to replicate or find an equal to for years.  Even if nobody even sees a deer in camp, this will be a season to remember for the momentous return of Gas Station Bacon!

Yes, that was two exclamation points in two paragraphs, Mark Twain be damned!  It's that good!


Thursday, December 1, 2011

Maturing in the Rain

We all go through stages as hunters and fishers.  When we begin, there is nothing we will not endure in pursuit of our quarry.  Drowsy, interminable overnight drives and are fought through with caffeine and terrible singing.  Fierce blizzards glance off our backs like that of a duck in the rain.  Lumpy sleeper sofas mean little to young backs and necks.  Horrific food does nothing to dampen our zeal.  Raging, noggin-splitting hangovers are braved with grim silence and subtle regret.  Tents destroyed in gale force winds, boot-robbing muck, mosquitoes and ticks and chiggers, burns and blisters...

As a younger man, I've experienced all that in one weekend.  Or seemingly so.  Now we often go get a room of questionable cleanliness and adherence to building codes, and sleep in relative comfort.  A lot of motel shortcomings disdained by more discerning travelers are easily overlooked in the presence of wet socks and a flask of good bourbon. 

The unquenchable urge to land the fish or harvest the buck will be deterred by almost nothing to 20 year old males with a full tank of gas, a tent, and some good tunes.  The only need that could overpower it for me was a biological imperative -- that of the warm embrace of a 20 year old female.

A decade and a half later, some things have begun to change.  For one thing, I'm no longer a young buck, constantly in the rut.  I can go for almost an entire weekend before the urge to buy a drink for a knot hole in a pine tree takes hold.  A little walking around money also helps.  No longer am I left with no other option than to slither into a soggy sleeping bag, only to emerge a few hours later and spend the night huddled over a puny, hissing little campfire.  Quality, modern gear comes in here.  I started with the old-school leather and canvas hand-me-downs from my dad's days of gallivanting about the countryside -- stuff that would inevitably gain a ton weight in the rain, fail to work in the snow, and basically needed to be taken out back, and shot.  Thank God and Robert W. Gore for the relative ease and comfort of current gear.

I still love hunting and fishing (barring lighting) in the nasty stuff.  As a public land hunter in a populated area, the worst days concerning weather are often the best days to get out there alone.  When it's blowing in sideways the chances of meeting another dedicated moron out there are greatly reduced.

There's also a great sense of adventure to it.  I would be hard pressed to ever encounter true wilderness adventure where I live.  Sure, I've been turned around on occasion, walked a mile out of my way, wondered how my compass was wrong and where the hell the truck was; but there are almost always roads and railroad tracks around here that alert the wayward traveler to his missteps before anything gets really hairy.  A snappy jab of Mother Nature to the nose can instantly amp up what I've come to call the Jack London factor.

I absolutely loved Jack London as a kid.  His stories of man vs. nature in Alaska held me rapt for hours.  To Build a Fire is still my singular favorite short story.  It's sitting in a compendium on my bedside table right now.  So when the mercury plummets, or the rain pelts, or the blowing snow claws at my face, it's easy to imagine myself as one of London's heroes, fighting for survival in the wilds, clinging to life on the ragged edge... even though the truck is a half hour snowshoe through the woods and I have a cell phone in my pocket with full reception.

Most of us out here also enjoy being judged a little tough by the general public, I believe.  Donning layers of fleece and wool can be like putting on your armor.  Strapping up to go pheasant hunting while the coiffed and blow-dried little weatherman harps and whines about the harrowing dangers of a quick trip to the store can feel downright manly.  Being judged a little looney never hurt anybody either.  Not gun-toting militia survivalist looney.  More like, It's -20 and you're gonna go sit on the ice and stare down a hole? looney.  Hell yes I am, and I know anybody I encounter out there will be of like mind and spirit.  Or going through a divorce.  Either one will be happy to see me.

All of that being said, there is a beautiful thing that can happen when you mature a little bit, and decide to stay in camp on a dark and crappy day.  Now that I'm not all Run & Gun all the time, I've been able to experience a few times myself.

We have an annual boys party in winter up at camp called Drink Beer Burn Wood.  It was formerly called the winter wood splitting party in an attempt to justify to wives and girlfriends that attendance was mandatory.  Wood was split in those days, but we now have more than enough and our little ruse is up.  Attendance is till mandatory, but we call it what it is.

Saturday of DBBW 2011, last February, I found myself getting nearly skunked through the ice.  While the older guys remained in one of the camps, I'd headed out into the bitter cold and blowing snow to try for some pike and perch.  A few perch made their way to the topside of the ice, but it was by no means a banner day.  As I was hunkering down for what promised to be nothing short of a mediocre afternoon in the cold, I spotted Rodger, snowshoeing across the lake with something in his hands.  It turned out he'd brought me a strong beverage with which I could brace my spirit against the wind.

In years past, I would have remained out there till the bitter end of the day, hoping against hope that the fish would turn on.  But alas, fair reader, I grow older and wiser.  We quickly retired to his cabin where a fire was built and more bracing drinks were poured.  We sat and talked, simple as that.  One of those long rambling conversations between men with a history, covering everything and nothing, full of pregnant pauses; and frankly, comfortable as hell.  We soon returned to the other cabin with the rest of the party in full swing, but I never would have had that time with Rodg had I remained out there banging my head against the ice.

Not a week ago Saturday, nearing the end of gun deer season, wind blew and rain fell and the woods were a sloppy, wet mess.  Frisbee, Cleeb, and I were on a mission to get out stands out of the woods before heading back to civilization and reality the following morning.  It was wet and cold work, and I was soaked through and through, as if I'd taken a shower with my clothes on.  But we made the best of it, joking and knocking tree branches to shower each other with cold spray.

We got back to the camp in time to shower up, join the Rog and Ted in front of the fire, college football on the radio.  Again, it was seemingly nothing special.  In a small camp darkened by the overcast skies, sitting in front of the fire, we chatted and ribbed each other, sipped our drinks, and listened to the Badgers defeat Penn State.  It was just about as perfect as it could have been.  Had I chosen to extend my work-abbreviated deer season by hunting that day, I would have missed what turned out to be one of my favorite parts.

Call it getting old and soft or call it getting wiser.  Sometimes you have a better time staying inside with the guys.  Toss a few cards, tell a few jokes, make a fine dinner.  It takes a few years to realize, but those can be the best days of all.

We may be getting older, but I still have plenty of monsoon days in me.

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