Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Good God Almighty Rapids

I climbed into my ladder stand in the pre-dawn dark of opening day.  There are plenty of opening days in my year, but the opening day of deer season is the only one that doesn't need to be qualified when speaking with friends.  The first day of trout fishing is called the trout opener, the first day of pheasant hunting is called a fustercluck, with every bird hunter in the region pounding the fields, and the first day of woodcock hunting just happens unbidden, in all it's blistery, sweaty glory without being named.  Opening day of deer season, in turn, earns the succinct title of "Opening Day" with all the glory and anticipation that implies.

I sat spellbound with my back to the river bank feet away, night slowly giving in to dawn, looking across an opening in the dense pine forest.  Multi-stemmed oak trees inhabit this riparian glade, as does my sneezy friend Goldenrod.  Ferns abound in spring and summer.  A small creek, not much more than a rivulet, its name unknown to me, makes a burbling entrance from the dark mystery of the pines extending up the bluff, and meanders it's way through the clearing to the river.  It twists and wanders over riffles and under secretive cut banks, as if trying to delay its fate, attempting to remain its own until gravity inevitably brings it to the river, and the end of itself.

While I saw not a single deer Opening Day, presiding like some humble and powerless guest conductor over the meadow, I was thankful to be in the presence of so much other activity.  With ready eyes and ears straining to pick up the tell-tale snap of that statuesque buck slipping through the forest cover, I had a full menu of woodland fare to feast my senses on.

In my heightened state of awareness, sometime later in the morning, I was severely startled by a series of snappy, wet-sounding barks and whines directly behind me.  Quick little snorts and bubbly wheezes right on top of me.  A crazed ferret in a full bathtub, panting while dragging his nails across a chalkboard, it sounded like something was being murdered in the river.  Honestly, it was making me a little uneasy.  I didn't want to look and blow my cover, but as I would soon find out, it was too late too to worry about that.

Four otters eventually appeared in my peripheral vision.  They'd busted me sitting in their tree on their river bank, and they were pretty pissed off about it.  They took turns, in pairs and threes, popping their bewhiskered faces out of the icy water to scold me.  I couldn't get a count at first, as they would randomly appear and disappear, rolling and splashing, making their disapproval well known to anyone within a quarter mile.  And they were committed.  They were going rip me up one side and down the other until they were content in knowing I was fully aware of my transgression.  Or maybe they just confused, having never seen a giant pumpkin sitting in a tree holding a rifle before.

In any case, their four-headed harangue was cut violently short when a bald eagle came rocketing down, out of seemingly nowhere, to make a breakfast burrito out of one of them.  This must have been one hungry eagle, as he payed me no mind at all, sitting not twenty yards away.  I'm sure the otters were more frightened than I was, but it was my second major adrenaline spike in as many minutes.  We see plenty of bald eagles in winter in this part of the country, especially around open water, but I'd never been this close to one in action.  My mind's eye very nearly could not compute the massive size and wingspan of the raptor.  The brilliant white of the head and tail, the flashing gold of talons, it all almost too much to take in as he climbed away, all four otters safe in the depths for the moment.  The gregarious otter brothers returned to check on me throughout the weekend, but they were always slightly more quiet about it after the Eagle Incident.

Back on dry land I enjoyed the slinky undulating gait of a weasel, running this way and that, doing I have no idea what.  He snaked and slipped, a mercurial white specter, all around the clearing for quite a while, no apparent destination in mind.  I'm no ermine expert.  I have no idea if he was hunting, lost, or walking off a bender with the boys the night before.

On the tiny creek his cousin the mink later appeared.  Rusty brown with the cutest little round face, he bounded up and down the banks, dove in and out of the water, stopped on a dime to sniff and look around.  While I suspect he was hunting for trout, my personification of him likes to think he was simply having a rip roaring good time.

And who couldn't on that little stream?  I don't know it well, but I grew up stomping in and out of it's brothers and sisters in the southern part of the state.  While completely different in it's specific environment, in that section it shares all the same qualities and character of the little rills of my childhood.  I was immediately drawn to it.  Like meeting a long lost relative with your family features plainly displayed in his visage and mannerisms.

I grew up in a place with water running out of the ground all over the place.  Springs, seeps, artesian wells -- there are braids of tinkling water around every corner.  Ponds and kettle lakes dot the countryside.  It's a place steeped in native American history as well.  The earliest known inhabitants were mound builders, later displaced by the Potawatomi.  With a nod to the statute of limitations on trespassing, I can say now that we spent a ton of time in winter on Potawatomi Creek as it passes through Big Foot Country Club (so named for the Potawatomi Chief, Big Foot).  I don't know much about golf, nor do I care to, but I do know that that private course, home to many springs and The Seven Sacred Pools of the Potawatomi, is also home to many of my dearest memories.

I came to know the heft and swing of a canoe paddle a full decade before I ever hoisted a fishing rod or gun.  While I now hunt a fish more than I spend time propelling myself across water, that was not always the case.  We canoed, kayaked, and rafted rivers and lakes from central Wisconsin to Tennessee, following Dad and Brian, and their love of both flat water and white water.  I've dumped more canoes in the Kickapoo river alone than most people have ever been in, something I'm oddly proud of now that I'm much better at staying in them.

The little creeks of Fontana are not big enough to support a canoe or kayak, but that did not stop us.  Among our countless winter outings on the golf course, from skiing to building forts, sledding to just wandering around, my favorite, the family favorite, was always floating boats.

Not big boats, mind you.  Not even little boats.  Miniscule boats.  The earliest "boats" were simply chunks of scrap wood pilfered from grandpa's shop. Or wine corks.  My brother Josh and I would spray paint them our favorite colors, and set out for the golf course with a pocket full of them, alone or with parents in tow.  Often, Brian would accompany us as well.  Our little boats evolved somewhat, but never really amounted to much more than anything that could be carried in our pockets, and happily lost to the whims of the stream.

The rules were simple.  Drop your boats in the creek at the designated starting line, and the first one to cross the finish, be it yards or a miles away, was the winner.  No getting in the stream, and no advancing your boat with your handy, specially chosen poking stick.  Only gentle nudges were allowed to free your boat from a micro-eddy or tangle of overhanging brush.  Of course rules were bent and flat-out obliterated in the heat of the moment, brothers competing with each other and the Old Man to win a close-fought heat.

I dreamed of my brightly painted wine cork, tossed and heaving in those currents.  I imagined it being beaten and dragged when I was supposed to be listening to a teacher rambling on about multiplying fractions or some other useless prattle.  Crewed by the heartiest of Lilliputians, it was the bravest little vessel ever to make the journey from one end of the golf course to the other.  Those daring, diminutive sailors, Vikings of my child's mind, were the only ones brave enough dare passage through the Good God Almighty Rapids.

The Good God Almighty Rapids, so dubbed after many mini sailing ships were lost to their tumultuous depths, were formed where a smaller feeder creek dumped into the main channel through a culvert under a cart path.  Our boats would be dropped in at the upstream end of the culvert, only to have Josh and I race to the other end, giddy with excitement at the prospect of our boats rocketing out into the tailwater.

We would tease and taunt, run and fall, fighting our ways through the streamside brush to help our little boats along the length of the creek.  Entire family days in winter were spent urging our micro-craft down the treacherous gauntlet of that creek.  A lot of them.  We'd leave the house to go sledding, but that never lasted long.  Everyone knew we were going boat floating.

My brother Josh was developmentally disabled.  With his beautifully simple mind he could make me laugh harder than anyone I've ever met.  He could also make me see red faster than anyone alive today.  I've never seen him happier than tearing up and down that little stream, poking stick in hand, splashing in and out of the water, exhorting his little boat to victory.

He's gone now, and so is Dad. As I sat in my tree stand this weekend, and whenever I see a little creek like that I look back fondly, sometimes with a tears on my cheeks, and remember our times braving the Good God Almighty Rapids.

Friday, November 18, 2011

The Camp Road

Note:  Some of you have seen this before.  Those of you close to me may recognize the date, and my reasons for recycling it, slightly edited, today.

He turns the wheel, and the truck noses tentatively onto the camp road.  Its tires won’t feel the monotonous, numbing vibration of pavement at highway speed for days.  He’s made this drive many times before.  It is an exercise in familiarity.

Through the decades-old red pines the sun sets, bruising the darkening sky deep shades of indigo and orange, a sight he rarely regards in the city.  He slows to take it in, reminding himself that looking is not the same as seeing.  Though he cannot abide the primitive structure and repetitive nature of old country tunes in his real life down below, up here he allows the simplicity of the music to wash out through the speakers and envelop him.  As happens so often, the proper soundtrack is necessary to get deep into the groove of this place at this moment. 

There are no majestic outdoor magazine cover shots to greet him on the road. No massive buck in the prime of his rutting glory, no black bear sow sending her cubs up one of the pines.  Still, he knows they are not far.  He shot his first buck not four hundred yards from here.  He was so excited that he almost didn’t believe when it fell, it’s antlers growing grotesquely in his mind as he raced back to the camp to bask in the glory that would be bestowed upon him by the men that he loved.  So he takes comfort in the fact that they are in fact there, somewhere.  He smiles as he realizes, once again, that seeing is not the same as looking either.

The lake now appears on his right, a simple kettle filled with cold, clean water.  He thinks that he should try to fish it sometime, but knows he might never get to it.  Some half remembered tale about perch the size of your forearm seeps like smoke under the door from the back of his mind, but he can’t remember if the story was even about this lake.  They all run together after a while.  A circular pattern suddenly describes itself on that door in his mind, branding itself there like an Ouroboros -- the snake eating it's own tail.   Tie some classic wet flies from the partridge he shot here last weekend, roll out some long, elegant casts to the sunfish cloistered in that enticing bed of lily pads, fry those fish and enjoy over some beers with the boys, then have one of those boys guide him to another shimmering Popple thicket full of grouse to harvest more feathers.  Repeat.  A perfect circle.  The thought dissolves as the final beam of setting sun breaks him from his reverie.  His casts are only long and elegant in his dreams.

He glances over to the passenger seat, and she is there.  Shining like she used to before the surgeries and pain so smugly robbed her of that infectious, gleaming smile.  He’s known the memory of her was coming since he pulled onto the highway over four hours ago.  It is part of the reason he makes this long drive.  He tries to remember the music of her laugh one more time, but he still can’t.  He wonders why, but is not sad.

He is nearly to the camp now.  He is no longer thinking, merely remembering.  His mind is awash in short vignettes from years past on this road– digging out of a snow bank with an ice fishing skimmer… ambling alongside his hunting buddy’s long strides with no particular destination in mind… rattling the frame of his old truck off every rock and rut with another tale of the perfect hookset or most imperfect shot… stopping to collect himself so they wouldn’t see his suffering…suddenly noticing that he no longer suffers every time down this road.  Yes, a fine road indeed.

He draws to a slow halt in the yard, the warm inviting glow of the kitchen spilling into the night, illuminating cords of split and stacked oak.  The sweet, acrid smell of wood smoke permeates the cab of the truck.  He sits quietly.   When he does open the door, he is brusquely greeted by a cold, hard late autumn wind.  He is immediately reminded of a story his father enjoyed telling.  His father had once witnessed a shirtless Oregon man, standing defiantly in the chill spray of breaking winter surf.  His father had asked the man why he was enduring the torturous cold while the icy spindrift had cut at his own face.  The man replied, with a devilish gleam in his eye, “Because it is real.”

This is real, he thinks.  This is what I was built for.  He gathers his travel gear from the rear of the truck, and feels his familiar way through the darkness to the door.  He opens the door, is greeted by the sound of a familiar story being told around the single homemade table, and is grateful for the camp road that got him here.

For Erin.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

JuJu, Rhinoceros, Apophenia

"Good Luck.  Be Safe!"

I've had those two short sentences said or written to me maybe a dozen times this week.  Deer camp is coming, and those are the prevailing sentiments.  Good luck getting a deer, but more than that, please come back home with all your parts attached and in working order.

Relative safety is achieved without too much trouble.  I hunt in an area without a lot of other hunters, I'm using a better safety harness in my tree stand this year, and I trust the men I hunt with implicitly.  Most of the fatalities associated with hunting occur when hunters fall out of their tree stands, or suffer some sort of heart problem anyway.  Either when Bullwinkle walks out in front of them or when they are attempting to drag a  deer out of the woods.  Shooting accidents do happen, but they are much less common than a chunk of bacon getting snagged up in a ventricle.  I have been much more frightened for my personal safety driving down the interstate than I ever have doing any type of hunting.

Luck is an entirely different matter.  We don't even know what it really is or if it exists.  In our struggle to define it, we assign random values, willy-nilly, to random occurrences until such time as we can link a certain outcome with a certain occurrence.  It's all very slipshod, but that doesn't prevent us from spending massive amounts of mental energy on it.  I'm sure it varies from person to person, but I think most of us have our own little rituals or talismans that we secretly believe help achieve a given goal.

I have a little pewter rhinoceros on my key chain.  It must be moved to the zipper of my hunting coat at the start of the gun deer season or I will surely go the entire year without so much as catching a glimpse of a deer.  I shot my first buck two days after I'd clipped that little guy to my coat, and now I have greatly diminished confidence if I do happen to forget him on my key ring back in camp.  God forbid I ever lose him.  I'd have to quit deer hunting.

There is a shirt that I prefer to wear under my vest while wading in summer.  I'm not going to go as far as calling it a must-have lucky shirt, but I certainly prefer to wear it.  If fits me well, wicks away moisture, and matches the trim on my favorite Fishpond vest, if nothing else.  It's important to look good on the stream -- never know when you might run into a mermaid.  If it doesn't bring actual luck, it definitely brings ease and comfort, two qualities in high demand when my notoriously sketchy fly casting starts to go sideways on me once again.

Just like mise en place in the kitchen, I think our little superstitious ticks help bring order to a world that can quickly ramp up to a Category 5 shitstorm if we enter into it ill prepared or disorganized.  Having everything in its place, including little trinkets, not only boosts confidence, but helps us to be more productive and level headed when it's time to rock-n-roll.

Apophenia is defined as perceiving connections in unrelated phenomena.  Or seeing meaningful patterns where none exist   This is where hunters and fishermen truly shine.  We see connections everywhere that may or may not be related.  Ask any fisherman why the fish are biting better (or not as well) today, and you'll get almost as many opinions as there are fish in the sea.  Everything from barometric pressure to sun spots, water temperature to wind direction, moon phase to static electricity -- all have them, and many more, have been thrust to the forefront as the cause of victory or defeat on any day in question.  I have literally stood slack-jawed in front of some of this armchair science, while at the same time, having absolutely no way to refute it.

Of course there are professionals, guides and commercial fishermen, tournament anglers and avid locals, who seem to have an uncanny ability to read their home water.  They've been fishing the same water for years, and have gained a sixth sense for how the lake "feels" today.  I realize this happens all the time.  The accumulation of vast amounts of data stored in an experts mind can result in pronouncements and catches that seem to border on the mystical.  But that's all it is, trial and error refined by experience.  The "10,000 Hour Rule" espoused by Malcolm Gladwell fits well here -- true expertise in any field comes from performing any task for roughly 10,000 hours.  I'm gonna need some aspirin and my tennis elbow arm band thingy after that much casting. 

It was once a common belief that Northern Pike lost their teeth in winter because they became more difficult to catch, and therefore, must have stopped eating until spring when their slightly frightening chompers would reappear for another summer of terrorizing perch.  We now know this to be patently false, but it was asserted as truth for decades.

Hunters are the same way.  We stand around tailgates and campfires trying make sense of what we have seen.  Deer trails go cold, birds seemingly disappear, coyotes stop responding, and we are forced, by our nature, to attempt to make sense of it all.  They stopped feeding, or it got too cold, or too hot.  Whatever.  We grasp at any shred of evidence, and stomp it to gelatinous goo until it oozes down into the cracks of our reasoning like mortar.  Not that it's an entirely bad practice.  Often, we do stumble on a bit of key information by simply hashing stuff out with each other.  Brainstorming over pickled eggs and beer can produce results other than the gaseous emission kind. 

To any of you fellow deer hunters who may stumble upon this before heading out into the fields and woods this weekend I say, good luck and be safe!  And don't forget your lucky socks.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Camp Food

Deer camp is looming.  Of course, to my mind, that means thinking about the food.

There are a gajillion things to get in order during the next week.  I have to take care of everything from stopping my mail to getting an oil change.  I have to pay some bills and remember to set the thermostat down as a far as I dare.  Guns and blaze orange, boots and hats, it all has to make it in the truck.

And the cooler, of course.  There is no shortage of food at camp.  In years past I've brought everything from smoked grouse breasts to canned fish.

Northern Wisconsin being Scandinavian country, there is always a preponderance of pickled goods around the table at camp.  I've pickled pike myself.  Frisbee and I experimented for a few seasons, and finally settled on a pickled egg recipe fit for royalty.  If royalty like pickled eggs, I guess.  They are a bit of an acquired taste, but are also damn near the perfect food with a cold beer.  Frisbee has taken over the job of pickling the eggs in recent years, and continues to do a bang-up job.

There will be pickled herring, pickled wild onions, and a vast array of pickled vegetables to accompany the bloody mary fest on Tuesday morning of deer season.  As everyone knows, the guns get put away on that morning, as we rejoice in the world famous tradition of Bloody Mary Tuesday.  Alright, maybe it isn't world famous quite yet, but it is the day I look forward to the most of all.

If you've been reading this blog at all, you know I love to hunt and fish.  Deer season is no different.  It's a chance to escape into the woods, and be quiet for a while.  But after three days, most of us are ready for a respite from shivering in a tree or on the ground.  And the people come from miles around on Bloody Mary Tuesday, quite literally.

Yard full of trucks means it's Bloody Mary Tuesday

If memory serves, we had 22 guys mashed into a tiny camp last year on BMT.  I adore it.  We eat, and drink, and tell the stories all day.  There is something almost magical about sitting around that table on that day.  Not to oversell it, it is merely a bunch of dudes of varying levels of sobriety, talking trash and telling jokes, but I can never get enough of it.  There's a chance that I might miss it this year because of this pesky career thing ruining my life, and it's killing me already, but as Dad used to say, "You wanna eat, you gotta work."

I learned to love head cheese around the table on BMT.  A peasant food since the middle ages, head cheese is not actually cheese.  It's a terrine made from the head of a calf or pig.  In lay terms, you take a head, remove the brain and eyes, boil the rest down, and pack it into loaf form.  The natural gelatin rendered from the head congeals when cooled, surrounding the delicious meaty bits, and forming a solid mass.  Then you slice it up and fall to, bloody mary in your other hand.  It takes a bit of courage the first time, but once that sweet seasoned meat jelly melts in your mouth, you're sold for life.  Meat lover's pizza is a misnomer.  real meat lovers know that head cheese is where it's at.

We're short of woodcock breasts this year, or there would be woodcock pate' again.  Woodcock has that livery taste that lends itself extremely well to the making of this outstanding cracker topper.  And it's a snap to make.  Fry up some timberdoodle breasts with shallots and garlic, and toss them in the processor.  Bash that up with some capers and a few other key ingredients not to be divulges on the open interwebs, and there you are, smiling again.

Pasties are a favorite of the northwoods, of course.  This pastry case filled with meat and root vegetables made it's way to this country from Cornwall, England with the Cornish miners who immigrated here with their mining skills and their recipes.  They worked both in the copper mines of the U.P. and the lead mines around Mineral Point, WI, so the pasty is popular throughout the state.  While the pasty has Protected Geographical Indication in Europe, meaning that the recipe and even the shape of the pasty are protected, they can vary more here in Wisconsin.  It's the perfect camp food as it's easy to warm up, and very satisfying after a long day in the cold.  It's a pouch of meat and potatoes, after all.  Very nearly impossible to mess up.

In our deer camp the meals are delineated by tradition.  I already know what I'll be having for dinner all of next weekend.  It adds to the anticipation factor when you know whats coming.  I haven't had that lasagna or that stew since last year, and I'm looking forward to how the leftovers of each will taste.

Of course deer, camp isn't the only camp of the year.  There are fishing camps and bird hunting camps as well.  While some of these do take place in remote cabins, they've also taken place in campgrounds, decrepit seedy motels, and illegal campsites on public land.  Those signs that say "No Camping" are merely a suggestion most of the time, as long as you don't get caught.  The tastes and foods of these camps vary as much as the hunters and fisherman who populate them, but I've come to discover there is often a discernible pattern.  That being, the stronger the taste or smell, the more popular it is.  Think about an annoyed wife or girlfriend, face scrunched up in utter disgust, stating emphatically, "You are never eating that again in this house!"  You're on the right track.

Kipper snacks stink up the joint nicely, but taste like heaven.  People will fawn and tumble over smoked salmon.  Others sing the praises of smoked Cheddar and Gouda.  Finding a guy who won't devour an entire chicken form my smoker can be a challenge.  Yet, suddenly and without explanation, these same, seemingly sane people, will consistently turn their noses up at smoked herring packed in oil.  They might even be repelled on horror.  I don't get it.  Kippers are another perfect food for the field.  They pack well in the vest when you're on the move.  All smoke and salt and oil, there is hardly a better snack on the tailgate with a beer after a long day of walking.

Stinky cheeses are another favorite.  In this part of Wisconsin, that means Limburger. There's no getting around it, a three month old Linburger smells like farts and feet.  The bacterium used to ferment Limburger is the one of the same bugs that compels us to shower regularly and wear deodorant.  But it is so creamy and delicious.  At our old fishing trailer on the Mississippi River, Limburger was a staple.  Spread on a chunk of pumpernickel, and downed with a slice of sharp radish, we could barely keep it in stock.  You didn't want to be within three counties of that trailer the following morning, but that is just part of the fun for most of us adult boys.

I'll admit, there is one camp food I cannot do.  My nemesis is the antiquated and venerable Blind Robin.  I don't know the origin of the recipe or the colorful name, but I do know that salt in those quantities is unnatural no matter how much cold beer you have on hand.  Extremely heavily salted herring fillets, Blind Robins have fallen out of favor in recent years, and for good reasons, I say.  Good riddance, with apologies to my friends Brian and Dick.

I'm on my way up to camp today to get ready for the upcoming deer season.  I'm looking forward to seeing the fellas, I can't wait to check my deer stand and possibly hunt up a few grouse, and I can't wait for all the yummy smoked, pickled, and salted snacky food.

And maybe one or two of these...

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Duck Noob

I can string a few sentences together, but I'm probably never going to be on any Pulitzer watch list.  I know my way around a kitchen, but I'll never earn a Michelin star in Paris.  I'm an upland hunter of some ease now, after years of flailing and stumbling.  My fly casting no longer resembles spastic flailing either, but Flip Pallot and I won't be rubbing elbows anytime soon.  I do love to tie flies, but don't see them being featured in any of the trendy mags on the shelves these days.  I earned a badge and won a handful of ribbons and trophies for my marksmanship shooting open sight .22's as a kid.  Then I missed an entire deer with my rifle... more than once.

Jack of all trades, master of none.

I'd say that phrase fits me fairly well.  If I look inside honestly, I can say I'm pretty comfortable with it too.  Maybe "Jack of many trades" would be more fitting.  The minutia of the internal combustion engine remain a complete and utter mystery to me, and always will.

There are a multitude of outdoor pursuits I've yet to learn.  I've never hunted bear or elk.  I've never called in a bobcat, but I have been putting in for a permit, and am very much looking forward to trying.  I've never fished the salt or grabbed a catfish.  For everything I have tried, there is plenty yet to do. So it is was with some lighthearted, almost child-like glee and an open mind that I sidled up to duck hunting a few years ago.

As with many of these things, it's all Brian's fault.  He's an upland guy, through and through, who hunts ducks only casually when the doodles have headed south for the year.  He and I were called out as "dyed-in-the-wool woodcock men" by other pheasant hunters while stowing our gear and sharing war stories in a gravel turnout a couple weekends ago.  It felt good.  From our guns and dress to the muddy boots and bloody hands, we'd earned our title and position in the eyes of men who know.  Not that it put any more birds in our vests that day.

I was surprised then, when a few seasons ago, he suggested we try our hand at some wood ducks on a little creek we had permission to hunt.  It was early in the woodcock season, the leaves were still up, it was stiflingly hot, and the hunting had been particularly tough.  Not the fine and pleasant misery Pat Mcmanus so brilliantly introduced us to, mind you, the sweaty, chaffing, want to shower and sell my gun misery.

So we did it.  We stalked up on a beaver pond, scared up some ducks, and shot them.  Easy as falling in a stream.  What follows is a snippet of the post I made the following Monday on a close-knit outdoor forum I frequent.

We walked another hundred yards, then crouch walked/belly crawled as near to the bank as we dared.  He looked over at me from his belly, and whispered, "If it flies, it dies," and grinned.  We popped up and started banging away...I couldn't stop smiling.  

Sunday, there were no ducks when we arrived at the dam so we hunkered down in the grass and waited.  It didn't take more than a half hour to limit as they circled in singly and as doubles... I can't believe I'd never tried this until now.  What a true blast!  

I was plainly thrilled with our success, and flush with excitement over my new-found and seemingly simple brand of hunting.  Oh, the blatant naivety. 

My first woodie drake

And the beaver pond that began my new obsession

Since that fateful trip down the creek I have been humbled.  I have learned it is not always that easy.  Sure, ducks coming up off the water are a million times easier to hit than a woodcock whizzing through the thick stuff... if you can find them.  Not to mention long passing shots and ducks streaking in from behind you.  Yes, it is much easier to sit on a stool or in a kayak than it is to push through brambles until your legs seem to belong to to someone else.  It's also a much bigger test of patience.

I've modified Selma Kayak for both jump shooting and calling ducks from a blind since then -- built the blind out of PVC and camouflage burlap.  I've foregone the kayak paddle for a single bladed canoe paddle while hunting as it lowers my visibility.  I've left the seat in the truck to kneel in the footwells for easier shooting.  I've purchase calls and decoys, mimicked more experienced callers on Youtube.  I've pestered my buddy Adam, a much more experience duck hunter, with novice questions via text at all hours, and he has been more than generous in helping me.  I've shot some ducks, and missed many more, or failed to get near them in the first place.  All of which is to say, I still suck at this.

While that is sometimes frustrating and humbling, it's also refreshing.  It feels good to be challenged with something new.  It's not always in my nature to ask questions and lean on friends for support, but it is good to know they are there and willing to help.  Even if it is with something as mundane as, "what in the hell am I doing wrong now?"

And there's a sense of wonderment.  Maybe wonderment is too strong a word here.  They're ducks, not mermaids.  But the learning curve, the vaguely new sights and smells of it all, sitting in the cattails instead of tromping over them chasing a pheasant, the excitement of getting up well before you have to in order to chase grouse... all of it leads to a sense of renewed pleasure.  Of course I'd seen ducks flying around everywhere in the fall, but I'd never stopped to look at ducks before.  When I'd driven over streams and rivers in the past, I'd study the brush to see if it looked "birdy," that undefined feeling that woodcock might be hiding in there.  Now I look for ducks too, and often this time of year, they are there.  They were probably there the entire time.  I just wasn't looking for them.

That Guy

You run into all sorts out in the wilds, just as you would at the mall or in the office.  Hunting mostly on public land this fall, I've had my share of run-ins.  They vary from the almost imperceptible nod and grunt, often favored my males unknown to each other, to full, rambling conversations.  Very occasionally, such an encounter might even evolve into a friendship.

Let's take a look at some of the people encountered afield in the past month or so and the archetypes they represent.

Duck season was not yet open.  I was scouting a lowland creek near home, looking to see if I could get Selma, my kayak, in there to jump some wood ducks out of the bends in the upcoming weeks.

It turns out I can...

It was an early morning on a Wednesday, so I didn't expect to meet any people out there, but I did.  As I scrambled up out of the Alder scrabble onto the railroad tracks that bisect the property, I almost literally bumped into Mark.  The typical stilted conversation of two slightly startled guys ensued.


"Morning.  Scouting for deer?"

"Ducks.  You?


"Ah... nice area for deer.  I saw a couple rubs back that way.  I'm gonna head upstream, look for beaver dams.  Good luck."

That's where the typical exchange usually ends.  I was obligated, by some unwritten code, to imply I agreed with his choice of scouting area by telling him I'd seen some sign or heard of a big buck coming out of that area in the past.  You don't crap on another man's dreams.  If he'd told me he was scouting for tribbles or fraggles I still would've felt obliged to hem and haw, and finally mumble something about it looking like good tribble cover.  Politeness sometimes requires fibbing.  Like telling her that her ass looks fabulous in those pants, it's the way of the world.  Not that it's a bad looking area for deer, it is.  I had seen some rubs... this time.

Mark looked a little new to the woods.  He was wearing hard shoes that would fit better in a cubicle.  He carried a clipboard full of aerial photos of a public hunting ground, printed from Google Earth, you could walk across in ninety minutes if you pushed it, and his pack looked like he was going to summit K-2 after a business lunch downtown.  When he asked if he could accompany me upstream, my first thought was that I didn't want to be telling the cops I was the last one to see him alive later that week, so I said sure.  I regretted that decision minutes later.

Mark was a talker.  And worse than that, as I should have guessed from the cognac cap toe oxfords on his feet, he was a salesman.  Double whammy.  Or maybe he was a money manager or an investment advisor... I can't remember.  I stopped listening sometime around the first mention of mutual funds.  I went out in the pre-dawn light to find likely looking outside bends with some timber in them, he went out to network.  Or perhaps he simply can't help reaching for that stack of business cards the second a new face trapses out of a ditch, into his line of sight.  We soon parted ways, and though I might have been able to avail myself of his financial services, and I'm sure he's a nice guy, his card was relished to the bin almost immediately, if only because he wouldn't shut the hell up.

A week later I sat on my miniscule, butt cramp-inducing camp stool, camo from head to toe.  This time it was after work, and I was waiting for the doves to come into roost on another parcel of public land near home.  I hadn't seen any other vehicles in the parking area, but this wildlife area is quite large with multiple parking lots, so I was only slightly suprised when I glanced to my left, only to see an entire Cabela's catalog slowly making it's way toward me.  Crushed under the mighty burden of what must have been the entire deer hunting section at any of the major hunting and fishing retailer, this guy had it all.

I've already admitted that I'm a bit of a clothes horse and a gear nerd, but this guy put me to shame.  I was a mere piker in his presence.  He was either going bow hunting for the entire season, or his wife had kicked him out with a garage full of his belongings on his back.  I saw the normal items you would expect on an archery hunter -- the bow... obviously, the range finder, binoculars, knife, backpack.  But beyond that, the poor pack was bristling with every conceivable piece of gear.  I saw a water purifier.  Let me stress that there's a convenience store 30 minutes away, tops.  I don't know, maybe he's still living out there.  I didn't catch his name when we exchanged pleasantries.  He was panting too hard from carrying a metric ton of stuff out to his tree for a couple hours of hunting.

Fast forward a few days, and we find ourselves somewhere on the same chunk of DNR land, down by the creek this time.  I'd walked the banks for a couple hours, unsuccessfully attempting to jump wood ducks.  Unsuccessfully attempting to even see wood ducks, actually.  I'd decided to take the stool off my back, and wait out the last hour of light cloistered in some willows near a spot where the creek widens nicely.  It's a spot I've hunkered down in quite a few times, watching the sunset, and even harvesting a woodie or three once in a while -- the adult equivalent of a living room cushion and blanket fort for the hunter.  Just as I was slipping into daydream land, a black lab pup burst into my lap, and nearly caused a major heart attack, doing the happy dance and face licking young dogs do when they get to go hunting.  His owner soon appeared on the opposite bank, having had the same idea about walking the creek for ducks, and called him back across.

The next time I was down there I saw the pair again.  And the next time.  Ted and Brandy are regulars, just like me.  They know the spot.  It's close to home and easy to hit after work.  Both of us being hunters, and relatively well raised and civilized, I guess, we've come to a point where we expect to see each other, and shoot the breeze a bit.  It's public land, and you always hope against hope to get away from others out there, but running into another dude of like mind and personality, doesn't feel like much of an intrusion.  We're not gonna exchange vacation pictures anytime soon, but I'll shake his hand and pet his dog when we cross paths.

At the other end of the spectrum we have Grunty McGee.  This guy is pretty common.  Brian, his cocker Buddy, and I were finishing up the woodcock season last weekend down in the southeastern corner of the state.  By noon Saturday we could tell the flights were gone, and the hunting was going to be tough, but we pushed brush hard most of the weekend, just to say we finished strong.

All those heady woodcock dreams, and it's over for another year.  A man could shed a tear.
In that particular spot, the bird thickets are separated by open spaces so you put the dog in one end of the cover, hunt it to the other end, then just sort of amble across the prairie to the next birdy looking thicket.  It was during one of these relaxing jaunts to the next stand of willow and dogwood that we encountered ol' Grunty.  From his gear and clothing, he was an obvious pheasant hunter.  From his demeanor, I don't think he'd gotten any in a long time.  Probably no pheasants either.

Not much can be said about the actual exchange because there wasn't one.  I was ready stop, grab some water from my vest, and bemoan the lack of birds, but good ol' Grampa Grunty was having none of it.  He strode by us not five feet away, without so much as a tip of the cap.  Our greetings were met with stone silence and lack of eye contact.  I'll never understand those guys.  I just hope they are happy in some way, not too busy to be bothered while trying to shoulder some unknown pain in a life that failed them.

Finally, we reach the most dreaded outdoor encounter.  The most vilified and annoying guy you're likely to meet afield -- the Blowhard.  The know-it-all who has shot more game, landed more fish and women than you and I, mere mortals, will ever hope to.  This self-aggrandizing asshat comes in all shapes and sizes.  Young and old, weak or stout, carrying a $5000 English side-by-side or a Sears & Roebuck single shot, he can barely contain himself long enough to ignore what you have to say.

I met one of these wonderful gentlemen while walking for pheasants not two weeks ago.  He had one more bird in his vest than I did at that point, which only encouraged him to share his considerable and superior knowledge concerning everything from the proper shot and choke tubes for pheasant hunting, to how best to train pointers versus retrievers.  All of it stated as surely as gravity would have taken him to ground had he tripped, which I was so wishing he would.  There's nothing to do with that guy except get away from him as fast as you can, let him go tell his wife how she folds laundry wrong or something.

Hunters are a cross section of humanity.  Just as with any other group of people, there are a handful of cretins and twits surrounded by the majority of good folks out doing what they love.  I look forward to going out there alone or in my small party of close friends, but sometimes you run into other people, and you just never know what you're going to get.
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