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.