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?


  1. Terrific, Lucas. That was a pleasure to read. Thanks~ Brett

    1. It was a pleasure to write. Thank you for taking the time to stop in.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. That makes me homesick for northern Minnesota. I grew up bird hunting in thick popple stands. "Birds" are partridge and duck hunting is an entirely different game. Also earned a lot of funny looks casting flies for river smallies, having 60-fish days, while everyone else struggled to catch a stringer of skinny walleyes.

    Great read!

    1. Thanks for reading! The popularity of smallies on the fly is finally on the rise. I might have to get on the carp and gar wagon to stay ahead of the crowds. More flies, toys, and trips!


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