Thursday, July 26, 2012

Thoreau's Rust

It wasn't that many years ago I attended eight or nine weddings in a single season.  I can't even remember how many there were or who they were all for.  Summer weddings all run together after a while -- hot church, pretty dresses, open bar, possible bourbon-fueled horrific dancing. Thankfully for my gift and travel budgets (and waning tolerance of  the Chicken Dance), that ridiculous rate has not continued.  I'm resting comfortably at four mandatory nuptial celebrations this year, leaving more summer weekends for whatever I wish to do with them.  But even with a relatively rare open weekend currently staring me in the face, there just isn't much for me to do outside at the moment.

Henry David Thoreau stated that he needed to walk in the woods every day lest he "acquire some rust."  I haven't walked in the woods or water for more than a half-hearted gambit in weeks.  I have become a soft and reluctant slave to the wonders of central air.  There are almost no hunting seasons open right now, and the drought and abominable temperatures have conspired to render my flowing home waters little more than somber rills of considerable thermogenic prowess.  Due to the drought, all the counties that entail my home fishing waters within a couple hours' drive have been declared a natural disaster area by the federal government.  Judging by the pitiful state of the streams, I would have to agree.  It's easy for me to get angry and flustered about the state of things, but then I remember to try to only worry about the stuff I can control.  And that even if all were refulgent tumbling stream and idyllic glade this year, summer weekends are often surrendered to other non-outdoorsy pursuits so I'm probably not missing that much in the end.

Were I a gardener, I'm sure I would have plenty to do. I am the oldest son of a Master Gardener who practiced his beloved hobby with a zeal generally reserved for those deemed headed for the nut house.  It is perhaps odd that I picked up most of his other outdoor loves, but somehow the green horticulture gene seems to remain recessive in me.  I suffered through my indentured servitude, kneeling on closed cell foam or cardboard, for many more hours of my upbringing than I care to recall.  I knew what raised lasagna beds were before they were even called that, and I swear that, for a while there as a dust-covered tike, I thought pvc pipe was made specifically for the purposes of building hoop houses.

While I treasure nearly every moment I spend outside, I have little wish to garden, especially considering that I live minutes from one of the most celebrated farmer's markets in the country.  I fish and hunt, pick the occasional sack o' shrooms or greenery, then happily hand cash over mountains of brilliant produce bordering the capitol square here in Madison, in order to enjoy the glorious peas or melons or whatever it may be, next to my fairly chased protein and fungi.

That attitude may be eroding slightly as I age, however.  In recent years I have begun to keep a battery of herbs standing sentry in hideously counterfeit terra cotta strawberry pots at the corners of the garage, something I swore I would never do until I considered my monthly expenditure on bubble packs of basil.  That was a big concession for me, but I still do not see the days of hauling loads of organic matter to recently constructed garden beds in my future.  I know which booths sell the best heirloom 'maters up on the square, know some of the proprietors by name even, and that is enough for me at the moment.

Foraging follows as the next step in progression of logic.  Were I a more adept, involved forager I would certainly have a lot more to do outside this summer.  But I pretty much stick to the so-called Foolproof Four when it comes to mushrooms (puffball, sulphur shelf, morel, chantarelle - as I learned them) with the occasional shaggy mane thrown in.  Anymore species than that, I start to worry about my internal organs turning to goo.  Berries I am comfortable identifying, and scarfing down like a bear when presented with the chance.  I can identify and collect probably a couple dozen of the various leafy green yummies found around, but I almost never think to until I see them, and start stuffing them in my fishing or hunting vest.  An opportunistic forager, at best.   

So, with "my" streams parched and hunting seasons closed, here I sit in a café because I often feel more relaxed, write more clearly, in new-to-me environs.  I ordered something more adventurous than my standard iced coffee, and have been presented with a libation resembling more a chilled flagon of diabetes than the dark and intense beverage I desired.  My mistake.  With the mercury rocketing toward the century mark again, while the dew point hovers somewhere between stifling and drywall mud, my current caffeinated hide is nestled in the corner of bigger building.  As I walked in, I could hear the rooftop air conditioners roaring away like locomotives in a desperate race to keep things livable here down below.

Perhaps an impromptu camp run is in order this weekend, to fish the slightly cooler northern waters, and daydream about all the pleasure fall will bring up there.

I am not the only outdoorsman growing sweaty and restless.  The "Campmeister," owner and perhaps figurehead of our camp, continues with his amusing emails that count down the days until the opening day of gun deer season, and record all the things we must do and buy before then.  I have been reminded numerous times by him that I'll need a new truck and deer rifle come November in order to maintain my membership, simply because he wants to use them.

Brian texted me last night without forewarning.  Five simple words: Is it hunting season yet?  We joked about yearning for the bloodied backs of hands often earned in the woodcock thickets, and hassled each other over missed birds of the future and past.

Ruffed grouse are the undisputed king of upland game birds in northern Wisconsin, and north-central Wisconsin is considered ruffed grouse Mecca to many uplanders from all over the world, but we don't have the birds here in the southern reaches much at all.  We used to when I was a kid, along with wild pheasants, but we don't anymore.  Now we have subdivisions and Pier One Imports, which if you are reading this, I think you'll agree, is not the loveliest of trades.  I have to drive about three hours north from where I sit right now to even have a chance at a grouse when I step into the thick stuff.

So we are specialized and fairly rare dedicated woodcock hunters, Brian and I.  The vast majority of upland hunters chase grouse, quail, pheasant, and a handful other species with unfailing determination and contentment while the diminutive timberdoodle gets relegated to second class status.  The woodcock gets little respect.  Grouse might be tougher to hit in cover, but I adore the twittering flush and challenging corkscrew flight path the camouflaged woodcock brings to the fight.  They can be found with relative ease around here, and found with relative ease almost everywhere when the migratory flights are passing through, so the bulbous-headed bog sucker has become our primary quarry.  I cannot get enough of chasing them through the mushy bottoms, prickly thickets, and up on top of the coulees in the western part of our state.

 If you're willing to hump it all the way up, they might be in the sumacs on top.  Or they might not.

And the faintly liver-like flavor of the red breast found under those feathers?  Tell you what, you hang on to your braunschwieger and sandwich spread.  I'll be perfectly content with my woodcock "pâté" on some crusty grilled bread with a good dark porter.  

I remember my first woodcock fondly and clearly.  Those images we share of upland hunting in the fall: the shimmering popples, the balsam-laden meandering creek bottom, the lone hawthorn hidden back from the trail that always seems to shelter a bird or two.  None of those were there for my first woodcock.  The bird flushed wild to my left and behind as we were trudging back to the vehicles, in an ugly little vine-choked slough along the gravel road that lead to the parking lot.  There was no arcing flight of bird or puff of feathers settling gently in the sun.  Honestly, I don't even remember seeing the bird, that ditch being so thick and tough to see through.  Still, I spun, I shot, and I was pierced by Cupid's arrow for chasing that silly looking little bird.
   Make no mistake.  We'll hit the road, and chase down some partridge this fall as well.

Which all calls into question something I've stated numerous times, both here and in everyday life before.  I have asserted that I don't need a rod or gun in my hands to enjoy my time outside.  I still believe that, but this summer has challenged my stance.  Frankly, it is easier and a lot more comfortable to plop down in the AC, and drink this melted candy bar.

Any hunter or fisherman who has been at this as long as my friends and I have know that we practice our chosen pastime not for the game itself, but because of the places it takes us.  I'm thinking of a place right now, almost unbearably green and full of life, that I never would have known had I not had a fly rod in my hand at the time.  I savor dozens of those places in my mind.  There are hundreds of thousands more that I will never know in my home state alone.

We fish against the odds, trying to fool the minute brains of fish into thinking bits of fur and feather are real insects or baitfish.  We push through the cover, fighting a certain losing battle with caloric net loss against the birds we will bag for the dinner table.  Living strictly on wild game in the modern world is a near impossibility with all the driving and expensive shells required.  I don't think it can be done.  Either you or your truck will starve.  Aside from that, who would want to?  I'm proud to say I do a lot of my own killing for the dinner table, but sometimes you simply need a succulent slab of pork or beef to throw on the grill, and I'm not allowed to shoot those.  So we don't do it solely for the food, though there is most assuredly a component of that.  We paddle long and hard against the wind to reach the revered honey hole, not only for the sustenance or joy of fighting a big fish, but because it takes us to that place.

Sometimes it is difficult to put your boots in the dirt and go when there is little impetus from the sporting side of things.  Now, for example.  The heat and humidity are convenient excuses that I've fallen prey to recently.  The lack of rain is a real problem to a small stream fisherman like me, but there are certainly more waters to fish.  It's time to get out the Gazetteer, and do a little exploring.   As soon as the weather settles into a slightly more humane pattern, I will force myself to get out there and work up a good lather, cover some ground and see what I see.  To shake off some of Thoreau's rust.

Note: If you are a local and you read this immediately upon posting, you may have noticed that the temperatures and humidity referenced herein do not coincide with those currently happening outside.  You're on to my secret.  I generally let these posts marinate for a couple days before I proofread, re-write, edit, and try to un-suck them as much as possible.  If I didn't do it this way, the shocking number of typos, non-sequiturs, and basic cretinism would render you unable to read this blog, or perhaps anything, ever again.  Thanks for checking in. 

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

North and South

As the temperature outside sails over 100 degrees yet again, and the sun beats the more winter-inclined souls among us into dreary submission, my outdoor mind turns to thoughts of fall.  It's just starting now, the very beginnings of autumn dreams sparking to life in the heat.  There will be college football tailgates in the lot, all of Madison pulsing with excited energy under the changing leaves, as we wait to cheer on Bucky.  There will be deer and ducks to chase, once again.  And there will be birds.

I re-waxed the tin cloth Filson bibs in anticipation last night.  No need for a heat gun in this weather.

That's an important distinction.  In the parlance of the Wisconsin hunter, especially those hailing from the northern part of the state, ducks are not birds.  They are not referred to as birds when hunting comes up in conversation, anyway.  When you're going duck hunting, you say you're going duck hunting.  The phrase "bird hunting" means one thing north of Highway 10-- ruffed grouse hunting.  While the mention of bird hunting could technically pertain to the pursuit of any winged and feathered creature, it evokes only images of thundering flushes in golden popple thickets and fragrant balsam bottoms to most of us.

That, and a nudge from my buddy Frisbee, set me to thinking about the many differences in language and practice we encounter between the urbanized, populated southern region of the state and the more wild realms up north.

I've already employed one linguistic difference between north and south, almost unwittingly.  I grew up in the southeastern corner of the state, in a tourist town where the "flat landers" from Illinois were tolerated during summer with cool indifference and where those trees of white bark and leaves fluttering on squared petioles were referred to by their given name -- quaking aspen.  The quaking aspen does not exist up north, or so the casual listener would think.  It's actually very prolific, but it's referred to as the popple.  I'd never heard that until I was invited to camp, and frankly, I hid my confused ignorance until I figured out what they were talking about.

"Popple," so far as I can tell, is also sometimes used as a catch-all for any of the slender light-barked trees that grow in thick, nearly impenetrable clumps around the state.  I've seen aspen, birch, poplar, and even occasionally young willow and cottonwood referred to as popple by those less concerned with botanical accuracy.  And I knew what they were talking about, even if their taxonomic skills left something to be desired.

Of course, bird hunting talk brings another salient example to the front.  Ruffed grouse are almost never called ruffed grouse up north.  Often, as denoted in the phrase "bird hunting" above, they are simply called "birds."

"How many birds did you get today?"

"The leaves are still up so it was a little tough.  A few wild flushes that I couldn't see, but I put one in the vest."

Both parties know they are discussing the ruffed grouse exclusively.  If a woodcock (the only other upland game bird up there) made it into the game bag, it would be mentioned separately.

The grouse is also frequently referred to as a partridge up there, another stumbling block for me as a rookie in the camps more than a decade ago.  I'd heard them referred to as grouse or even "ruffs" or "ruffies," but never as "partridges."  In my early days, it often seemed as though those guys were just making up names for stuff in order to confuse me.

A similar anomaly exists in the fishing world of our camps up near the border with the upper peninsula of Michigan.  Often, if not always, "fishing" refers solely to trout fishing in that part of the world.  Like bird hunting means grouse hunting, when someone from the camps asks you how the fishing has been, they most likely want to know the condition of the local trout streams, at least outside of the ice-locked winter months.  And you can forget talking about fly fishing up there.  It remains little more than a curiosity with the old guard still in power.

Being a dedicated smallmouth fly rodder, this can sometimes throw a spinnerbait into the gears of a conversation for me.  I've been met with more than one quizzical look after going on about fly fishing for smallies in the same rivers they think of as trout water.  Then I remember that trout are king up there to most, and then almost exclusively using a spinning rod and worm.  Which is a real shame actually.  Not that I have anything against catching a few gorgeous brookies for dinner, but if they were even casually in touch with the outside fishing world, the up north boys would realize they reside literally in the heart of what has become a world-class smallmouth fishing destination in recent years.  People empty their pockets to airlines and guide services for the chance to strap up against huge smallmouth bass in rivers my friends and deer hunting compatriots drive right by to fish for six inch trout.

A bass fly fisherman from the southern part of the state is a fish out of water, as it were, telling stories around the fire.  I might as well be speaking a foreign language half the time.  Brian even commented on it once, during the long drive home after a great bass fishing trip up there.

"Man, those guys have no idea about the smallies, do they?  They just looked at us like we're nuts."

"No they don't, and all the better for us.  They leave them alone."

The Yooper and northern Badger also have a rare and strange superpower.  They can make wood.  At least if you listen to them talk about it.  Where a kid from Fontana like me grew up splitting and stacking ricks of firewood, they "make" firewood.  After a little reading on the subject, I believe the phrase could be a calque of the Finnish, much like a Cajun might "make groceries" using a direct translation of the verb faire in French.  Whatever the history or derivation, I grin a little inside every time I ask what happened up at camp in my absence, and it is related to me that firewood was made.

The gear and tackle of the northern sportsman must also be discussed here.  While the causes can vary, almost none of my peers from the northwoods find themselves some-time slaves to the whimsy of outdoor equipment purveyors as I do.  I stop at the big box stores or specialty web retailers all the time, and often become enchanted with a certain rod or reel, boot or backpack.  They don't have to worry about such infatuations around camp, as the nearest big stores are hours away.  Not that they are ignorant of quality, it's simply often a matter of gas mileage and opportunity for some of them.

Ted will never read this as he remains convinced the internet is a fad and thinks a laptop is something you pay scantily clad women for in the back of a gentleman's club, so I can state with no worry of future recriminations that his life-long affair with questionable gear is the direct result of his induction into the Hall of Fame of Tightwads.  He is cheap and proud.  I've accompanied Ted and Rog on the deer season grocery run for camp, and I enjoy watching Rog slowly come to a simmer as Ted quibbles over every single cent for a can of beans or a loaf of bread, the cost of which will be divided between multiple paying members of the camp.  Ted is completely willing to fight for quarters of cents... as Roger's ears slowly take on a burning glow of frustration in the soup aisle.  The entire affair is glorious to take in.

Ted is one of the funniest men I've ever met.  He is easily the undisputed champion of joke tellers I know, and has forgotten more about trapping fur bearers than I will ever know.  A great guy to hang with.  He also painfully parted with $25 for his last rifle scope, pulled from a bargain bin (Camp Boys, correct me if I'm wrong on that figure).  You simply cannot convince a miser of that jaw-dropping conviction to spend a few more bucks on his gear.  I stand both amazed and mystified when he walks into camp with yet another "steal" most hunters would toss in the bin.  Then I sit back and try not to cry laughing at his stupendous jokes and stories with the rest of the guys.

Primo stands at the other end of the spectrum among friends who use gear from decades past.  He is one of the best woodsmen I know, and has a nearly encyclopedic knowledge of every fire road, two-track, and fading backwoods ATV trail in the eastern county.  When October rolls around, I'll look forward to our meandering bird hunts together more than anything else up there.  Sometimes we spend more time bumping down rocky lanes last visited by voyageurs, guns safely cased, than we do actually chasing birds, but that's OK too.

He has no aversion to quality gear, outfitted as the most hearty logger all winter long, right down to his signature Husqvarna suspenders.  Everything I've ever seen him use has been stout, well-cared for, and in perfect working condition.  It's just that some of it was popular well before I was in elementary school.  He apparently sees no need to update, nor should he if he be judged by results.  He bags as many fish and game birds, spends more time in the woods, than almost anyone I know.

 Canvas hipsters, Mitchell reel, Ugly Stick, even a wicker creel on the back.  Like fishing with my bud, Norm Rockwell

That brings us to the what I suppose you would call the Up North Attitude.  It is not unique to the northwoods or our camps by any means, but that is where I encounter it most often.  Relaxation is part of it, surely, but that does not fully encapsulate the feeling. It's more the idea that, come what may, we're in camp and everything else is better left for another time.  Nobody gets worried when guys are hours late or unaccounted for.  They probably ran into friends.  People don't get uptight about dinner time or curfews -- eat what you want when you want, and go to bed whenever you see fit.  There exists no unfortunate infighting or snarky gossip sadly found in many of the other groups I associate with.  We all go along to get along.

The internet is unheard of and you have to drive quite a piece down the road to get a finicky single bar on your cell phone, so there is almost no contact with the outside most of the time.  The world carries on, the weather will be what it will be even if you can't check it, and there's cold beer in the fridge.  Let's toss some cards, and pretend we're the only people on the planet for a while.  Why else are we here, after all?

Friday, July 13, 2012

Of Sweat and Flannel

According to the all-seeing eye of the National Weather Service, we are now experiencing an official severe drought over here in my neck of the woods, with no rain in the foreseeable future.  Glad they cleared that up.  I'd been wondering why my lawn has taken on the shade of a blond roux, puzzling over my home smallie water, and its resemblance more to a rock garden than a stream at the moment.

Not only that, but we suffered brutal record temperatures most of last week.  I personally saw 106˚ accompanied by sopping wet dew points on two different occasions.  That's just uncalled for here in America's Dairyland.  When one travels from Wisconsin to warmer climes, towering mercury is a novelty, something to be braved and remarked upon.  I've experienced blast furnace Phoenix and jungle-wet Baton Rouge, among others.  They were all bearable, if not entirely enjoyable, only because I could say I'd done it.  Been there, did my best to make like a local.  When that same heat follows me home, smacks me on my sweaty red face, it's just soul-deadening.

I enjoy all seasons outside.  Point to a week on the calendar, I'll have a fair idea what I hope to be doing then; armed with rod, gun, foraging bag, or simply my favorite pair of boots.  If I were forced to arbitrarily lay aside a couple of those weeks, hop into one of those slightly creepy, claustrophobic stasis beds from a science fiction movie for a fortnight,  I freely admit I would aim for the bull's eye encompassing the dread high heat of summer.

I should be running to "my" stream after work these days.  No epic fishing excursions that take on lives of their own, mind you, merely a quick check-in a few times a week.  I know it better than any other water, and it produces fish for me most times I stop to visit.  Sadly, thanks to the combination of crushing heat and no rain, it has been rendered practically unfishable for the moment.  That is not the end of the world, it happens every few summers, but it does rob us of some of the joyful spontaneity of the fishing quickie.

If nothing were rotten in the state of Denmark, I'd also be gathering chanterelle mushrooms right now.  I can almost taste them, almost smell that earthy aroma, but I cannot find them, thanks to the parched earth tactics currently being employed by Mother Nature.  I checked my favorite spot late last week, neck crimson and sticky, salt stinging my eyes, only to confirm that there were no fungi to be found there.  It was a pleasant hike if you enjoy trudging up and down oak forested hillsides in a sauna.  The only squirrel I saw looked as hot and panty as I felt, and I think he wondered just what I was doing out there.  Similar thoughts had occurred to me.

Shortly thereafter, Trout Caviar's gorgeous pictures of a chanterelle-based salad served only to pique my envy and frustration.  Emotions might've grown a bit out of control were it not for his calming, nearly libidinous foodie photos and my minty mojito close at hand.

Of course, one can simply purchase the chanterelles I crave, but that always seems a touch boorish to me for some reason.  Much like wild game and sex, a man shouldn't have to pay for wild mushrooms if at all possible, but I am only human after all, and I caved to my need for the shrooms after only a few days of resistance. 

Fortunately, even in the presence of mirages shimmering off every flat surface under a pounding sun, acres of pastel clusters appear in the form of the milkweed flower.  Being half a Scandinavian mutt myself, I've pickled nearly everything short of a doorstop, or have enjoyed such treats pickled by others.  Smelt and pike, Brussels sprouts and ramps, eggs and asparagus and sugar snap peas-- even some cucumbers on occasion, but I've never pickled milkweed pods, which seems odd to me now as they do sort of resemble fat little gherkins.  I'd never even considered it, a personal shortcoming I hope to overcome post haste.

We denizens of the Midwest know well, however, that punishing heat and drought cannot last.  Living closer to the center of a massive continent than our compatriots nearer the coasts, we are lucky to experience a wider climatic range than those more temperate, consistent environs.  In short, we have seasons, and I, for one, am pretty happy about that.  Among my travels, I've also been in Tucson for a Badger bowl game near the new year holiday, and let me state plainly: garland on a saguaro does not Christmas make for this Yankee.

As the seasons of summer and winter are polar opposites, so are my feelings toward them.  Between the two, I'm a  praise-Jesus-and-pass-the-ammunition affirmed man of winter for many reasons, some of which I've stated here before.

I'm a gear and clothes nerd for one thing.  There is only so much pride of ownership to be found in a wicking t-shirt and a pair of shorts while earth bakes underfoot.  Conversely, when the snow flies and mercury burrows, there are entire hosts of fragrant wool and fleece to choose from.  Earnest discussions take place concerning the contrasts between natural and synthetic fibers as base layers.   Big chunky boots and a snug balaclava can make a man feel like a northern ninja ready for assault, whether the target be fish, fowl, or fur.  And alone in my ice shanty with only the glow of a lantern and comforting whir of the Vexilar, I find chilly, comfortable peace.

In summer a person can shed only so many clothes in public before the local constabulary makes an unwanted appearance.  While Old Man Winter visits, there are almost always more layers of heavyweight Polypro to be found.  And then there's flannel.  Glorious, glorious flannel.  Give me a thick Woolrich flannel shirt and pair of broken in leather work gloves, I'll move your firewood all day with a silly grin plastered to my mug.  Add a Stormy Kromer, the pinnacle of northwoods style, and we're ready to head to town for dinner and a brandy old fashioned, your treat in exchange for the labor of course.

Honestly, I'll take this over last week every time. (photo courtesy of Adam Schruth)
I fished with a group of friends the morning that picture was taken, though I was in Alpena, MI while the photographer, Adam, was at home in Wisconsin.  The weather was equally tepid in both locations.  We caught only one fish through the ice that arctic day, but such is not always the case.  If you are brave enough, and properly prepared, those deeply sub-zero days can provide very good fishing.

Years ago at the annual "Drink Beer, Burn Wood" celebration with the old guys up at the camp, the thermometer hovered at a benumbed -24 when we awoke.  With the woodstove set to pinging and a hot breakfast in me, I set forth to venture out on the ice while those of receding hairline and perhaps more intelligence gifted through age, decided to stay in the camp.

Fishing in extreme cold is a slow and sometimes cumbersome affair.  It forces you to think, to plan ahead, which is one of the reasons I enjoy it.  Much like stalking a rising fish in warmer months, simply flailing about without a plan will not do.  You'll get cold and tired long before you get your dinner.

The first thing you learn on the south side of zero: plastic breaks.

I set up my portable shanty, being reminded the entire time that slow and steady defeats the cold most of the time, and managed to get that broken heater started using a pair of needle nose pliers.  Then, with slow boreal contentment, I set upon the single greatest fishing day I have ever enjoyed on that lake.

I was fishing with dead smelt under tip-ups, and often had the great and rare pleasure of multiple flags being tripped at once.  The pike were big for that small northern basin, and hungry.  As the wind whispered through the crown of pines around the lake, I eventually flopped prostrate on the ice in appreciation, warmed by contentment and wool, and perfectly happy to be left out in the cold.

Here's hoping the weather breaks soon.  Not all the way to winter yet, but some moderation would be greatly appreciated.  I could do with some ice time, but not just yet.  There are grouse and woodcock to be chased in the thickets before then, fat fall fishes and squirrel pot pie, venison and pheasant for the dinner table before the hammer falls.

Gloves are for pansies... and for putting on immediately after your picture is taken.



Monday, July 2, 2012

The Swedish Glug Affair

Last weekend Brian and I fished a small river in the southeastern corner of Wisconsin.  It hasn't always been the most generous river in terms of catching fish, but it is right in the heart of my childhood stomping grounds, so I enjoy it almost no matter what.

We've waded this diminutive beauty together for smallmouth bass numerous times over the years.  Like all small rivers it is often sensitive and moody, showing great diversity of flow and attitude from trip to trip.  The fishing last weekend was not particularly good, but it was not terribly poor either.   It was, I guess, reliable -- quite possibly the only word you can use to simultaneously compliment and insult a fishing river.

As we fished, I noticed again that Brian is entering the Crusty Old Guy stage of his outdoor career with a good deal of grace, actually.  He has avoided stagnation in the form of idleness.  As he creeps toward his sixth decade outside, he remains an archetypal man's man. Meat and potatoes seasoned only with the salt of the Earth.  Canning and foraging, gardening and pickling, doting over an aging bird dog have in no way diminished the stunning natural athlete and hickory-hard badass I've known since I was a boy.  He can still walk farther than you and I, carry a heavier load than you and I, and close through the thick stuff on a birdy flushing dog faster than you and I.  It's just that those abilities, once a matter of no conscious thought, are concerns of effort and pride to him now.

I will stipulate that the swim trunks do detract from his tough guy reputation

We waded in each other's company, Saturday, letting the flow and layout of the river dictate our cadence and relative positions.  Communicating through language pared to it's essentials by decades of friendship on the water, we melded into a single fishing entity, covering water, passing one another or waiting for the other, as the bends and current dictated.  After you've fished together for so long, especially on a familiar stretch of water, there is little need to talk.  You grunt, and point, and slide around the river like stars orbiting each other, both to cover water and stay out of each other's way.  This dance will never appear on any reality TV show replete with deep spray tans and miles of cloyingly saccharine cleavage, but that does not render it any less beautiful to me.

Brian has fly fished in the past, but for the most part, I think I'm reading him pretty well when I say that he simply doesn't abide that fancy crap.  He grew up when fly rods were called "trout rods," and that was what they were used for, usually by effete city boys in funny clothes from Chicago.  Times change, Brian doesn't.

So it was, then, that I was was casting the big streamers I love to tie, on a fly rod that has become my right arm, while he pounded the water with a crankbait and spinning rod.  That was fine with both of us.  We don't judge each other for our personal preferences in methods of fighting fish.  I think it's ridiculous when fishermen do.

"Peanut Envy" Designed by Kelly Galloup, habitually tied and fished by me.

Brian was throwing the old reliable Rebel Crawfish crankbait, and muttering to himself in an affected Yooper accent every time he caught a fish, "That's the only luhr a man needs, hey."

For those few of you unfamiliar with the crankbait as a concept, it is one of those fishing lures that consists of a body or "plug," usually constructed of wood or plastic, from which hang multiple sets of triple or "treble" hooks.  The crankbait is often used as a so-called "search bait," meaning you cast it around, with that armory of hook points rattling through the water until it snags into something; be that fish, tree, stone, or otherwise.  Crankbaits as a class are a formidable, spiny little bunch, and the only ones that make me think, Aw Geeze, please don't put a hook through my thumb, every time I reach down to grab a fish with one in its mouth.  

Eventually, just as sometimes happens on the dance floor, there had to come an ugly end to our watery gambol.  As we occasionally uttered three-word thoughts to each other, and silently pointed out likely targets for one another's casts with our rod tips, he suddenly yelled, "Look Out!"

I had been lulled into that trance born of the rhythm of fly casting blindly to a sparse fish presence, when the big smallmouth bass he'd latched into, crankbait bristling with hooks, turned sideways in the current, and shot between my legs.  There was nothing either one of us could have done about it.  Those hooks were buried in my hide inside a second or two.  The fish thrashed a few times whilst tethered to my ankle, an interesting sensation to be sure, and it was a welcome relief to my rapidly firing pain receptors when she finally pulled herself free.    

Crankbait by Rebel, river sandal by Keen, pasty Sconnie ankle by Mary and Kurt

I may be judged soft and weak by future generations, but it was then that I declared we were done fishing.  At least until I was able to return to a comfortable gait sans crankbait welded to my ankle, snagging on the grass and weeds every other stride.  An Ace Bandage temporarily snugging it to my leg would've been the perfect option for continued fishing in minimal discomfort, but you can only carry so much stuff in your vest.

We retired to Brian's house where he found a pair of cutters and some heavy cord with which to pop the hooks out of my flesh, but not before the banter began as I drove us back to the homestead.  It took only minutes before the digs began to fly, concerning both his inability to control his fish and my failure to get out the way.  It may very well be that we each felt a little bad for the way it went down, but such feelings are seldom shared between us.  Instead, we jab and laugh and curse each other.  And laugh some more.  It's a different form of intimacy, much more comfortable and effective than talking it out.  I can't even imagine...

"Oh, my!  I am so truly sorry I was unable to control that fish before he hooked you in the ankle.  It must be dreadfully painful.  Please let me know if there is anything I can to to assist you."

"It's quite alright.  I apologize for being unable to get out of the way of your trophy fish.  Let's just ride home quietly, and get this taken care of immediately."

How uncomfortable.

The hook removal went swimmingly well, using a method of cutting away the body of the plug (because I was hooked on both ends), then popping them out with a length of heavy monofilament line.  Easy as pulling a loose tooth, really, except there is no hook fairy to give you a quarter in the morning.  It's probably best not to hide hooks under your pillow anyway.

I was certain to remain stoic and completely unmoving during the procedure, knowing that the tiniest movement or peep from me would result in Brian having the ammunition to blow the ensuing decades of campfire re-tellings entirely out proportion.

Therein lies one of the few challenges (and greatest pleasures) of being a dude hanging out with other men.

I am pleased and lucky enough to inhabit a huge group of loosely-knit men who cover the entire spectrum of interests and allegiances from MENSA to IBEW, burning Red State to hardcore Blue, Metallurgist to tattooed Heavy Metal rocker.  Fifth generation farmers and hipster nerds, alike.  I think that stems partly from the fact that any time you claim a bar stool in Madison you're as likely to sit next to a Doctor of Meteorology as you are a plumber, and partly from the fact that nearly everyone fishes at some point, no matter what they were born into.  Fishing talk transcends almost all boundaries, and comes up just as easily at the bar as it does whispered in the pews before a wedding.  At least if you're hanging with me.  

The one thing almost all of these friends have in common is that they love to give each other a hard time.  I do too.  As far as I'm concerned, one corner of heaven is reserved for a card table or wood stove and the re-telling of the time your buddy screwed the pooch, or pulled the greatest prank ever played.

Speaking of which...

In the fall of 1996 I was invited to join a deer camp in the northwoods of Wisconsin, by a family whose only natural state of being is one of generosity and kindness.  Let us not assume, however, that their natural inclinations toward charity and goodness precluded these men from pulling one of the most well-conceived and enacted, stressfully painful pranks I have ever been the target of, early in my stay there.

It involves the consumption of a homemade Swedish liqueur called Glögg, or "glug" as it is known to the American ear in camp.  Rodger makes glug for the boys almost every year.  It is a family recipe passed down from father to son, with rightful pride, for generations.  I've seen the tattered and dog-eared oldest surviving incantation, the writing barely legible on crumbling yellowed paper.

It's the good stuff.  An alcohol content absolutely through the rafters, but prepared and reduced in such a way that the drinker feels almost none of the deleterious effects until it's too late.  And that is the crux of the problem, as I so ruefully learned.

At the time, I was only newly dating Rodger's eldest daughter, Erin, she of radiant green eyes and perpetual mischievous grin.  He was a pilot and retired naval officer, I was a nerdy little college puke, invited by his nephew, Frisbee, with whom I'd become fast friends in the dorms.  I was was fully and rightfully intimidated by Rodger.

The first Sunday night of our eleven-day deer season the glug came out.  I partook, and heartily.  Being the new guy, however, and unable to taste the intensity of the alcohol so well prepared, I over-indulged.  That's stating it kindly.  I hastily got very, very intoxicated.  Rip-roaring drunk.  Loud, annoying, hammered-asshole inebriated.  You get the picture.  I was 22, don't tell me you never did.

Frisbee and I had to return to Madison the following morning for our mid-terms.  I was hungover and tired, but happy to get back to the city to see Erin, admittedly less joyful about the tests.

We took our exams, and, as promptly as possible, made the four-hour trek back to deer camp.  I was in high spirits, riding back up north with Frisbee, the appropriate clothes and firearms in back, ready to hit the woods and hang with the guys at my new camp.

We rolled in, full of youthful enthusiasm, and I was surprisingly greeted with less than stellar salutations.  Even shunned a bit by the better actors.  While Frisbee was greeted with hearty handshakes and claps on the back, I was granted only mild acceptance.

Rodger's brother shook my hand, and whispered, rather mystically,  "I CANNOT believe what you said about Erin to my brother."

Later that night Rodger came in with the bottle of glug under his arm.  As is the tradition, he shook hands with every man around the table... except me.  Completely ignored me, as a matter of fact.  I stood up straight and tall, as a young man courting his daughter should have, and stuck my hand out, only to be met with cold indifference.

As the evening progressed, he offered shots of glug to the boys.  "Who wants a shot of glug... Ted?  Paul?  Primo?"  All the way around the table, until he got to me.  He looked me directly in the eyes with a fair amount of derision, and asked plainly, "Truth serum?"

I wilted inside.  Damn near died, honestly.  I had no idea what I'd said to him about my dating life with his daughter, couldn't recall most of the previous Sunday night, honestly.  In the days that followed, it was all I heard about from the other guys. need to apologize to Rodger.... I can't believe what you said to him... you should never drink that much in front of your girlfriend's dad....

The entire remainder of our gun deer season progressed like that, as I fretted in my ladder stand and worried in my bunk.  Cold shoulders from the old guys and glances of pity from the boys my age.  In the true spirit of a good prank, it was perfectly executed and very nearly too uncomfortable to take.

Of course, it came out on the final Sunday that I hadn't said a single bawdy or remotely inappropriate thing to Rodger about Erin and I.  But they knew my memory of the evening in question would be foggy at best, and jumped on the opportunity as a clan.  They gleefully played me the entire week.  I have to say that Rodger played his part very well, effectively treating me like a leper the entire time.  I only wish that I had known him then as I do now, so that I might've been able to express true thoughts to him personally, concerning his acting skills and devious trickery.  As it stands, we remain tight friends to this day, so perhaps it is better that I couldn't.

I can't explain it to you now, all these years later, but this ribbing and silliness are examples of things men can bond over.  It doesn't hurt anymore that they keelhauled me.  It's hilarious.  There are plenty more camp stories where that came from.  Pranks that I had a part in, or that happened before I was even born.  They are the basis of our banter and inside language, rites of induction and continued membership.  They're part of the narrative of who we are as a tribe, and I love them.  Even if they occasionally sting at the time.

The deer camp boys, after a deer drive.  I'm on the left, safely four away from Rodger.

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