Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Other Kind of Hunting

November 20th, 2011-Town of Mosinee
This is not a book review or a recollection of an opening weekend of deer hunting, those are left for more focused writers than I.  No, these are thoughts taken from notes scribbled with cold hands on a tattered notebook while spending lots of quality time in a tree.  There were two firsts for me this opening gun season weekend.  I’ve hunted whitetails for the past 40 years in Wisconsin, both gun and archery,  but this year, not a single deer ventured into my little corner of Marathon County.  I’m not a hunter who gets wanderlust after a few hours of solitude-I try my best to stick it out, all day, everyday during the gun season.  My backpack is stuffed with all the essentials-a thermos, a sandwich or two, extra shells, reading glasses (now days) and a good book.

The other first I had was starting and finishing a book in two days….two “sittings.”   Sure, I’ve had some that I could barely put down- Norman Macleans’s “A River Runs Through It” comes to mind, but rarely in my daily life do I take the time to sit still for so many hours and dive into a book cover to cover not wanting the last page to arrive.  Am I a bad hunter because I peer down from my stand to scan a few sentences?  In my mind, no, it's part of the hunt, an escape, and the senses are still alert.  This year, having long hours of quiet and a blanket of snow for easy viewing, made drifting off into a book pretty easy.  Any creature within a hundred yards of my tree would have a difficult time passing by unnoticed (at least in my mind).

“A Grouse Hunter’s Almanac- The Other Kind Of Hunting” is the book that made it’s way into my day pack after sitting idle on a shelf a year after I picked it up from a book store.  It’s penned by Wausau writer Mark Parman, and with full disclosure here, he is a friend of mine whom I’ve spent time with over the years on skinny skis, mountain bikes and at our family deer camp along with a few grouse and woodcock hunts years ago.   I follow Marks writing in Silent Sports Magazine, where he is one of the editors of cycling and  cross country skiing articles and occasionally venturing out on other subjects, usually slipping in a hunting reference or two.  Mark is the consummate bird dog hunter and specifically, a grouse hunter.  That is the “Other Kind of Hunting.”

As with all opening day deer hunts, the first several hours are intense-every twig snapped is checked out, every red squirrel sounds like the next big buck sneaking thru the brush and there is no time for reading.  All focus is on…..everything.  As the morning lengthens and the woods slowly wake up, I find myself relaxing somewhat, realizing this year the typical flurry of the hunt, those first couple hours, has passed me by.  As the first day passed into the second of the weekend, I would see and hear exactly zero deer.  As mentioned-a first for me.  Unlike some in the woods this weekend, I wouldn’t blame wolves, bears, the DNR or ….cougars, for it’s called hunting, not shooting and it is that way sometimes.  Mark mentions not pulling the trigger or killing game as often now as when he was a young hunter, and I can understand that.  This year, Mother Nature didn’t give me a choice.

So finally after several cups of coffee, and the forest quieting down, I felt I could settle in and begin my read. Inside the dust cover, a quote by Aldo Leopold set the tone for the pages that would follow-  “There are two kinds of hunting: ordinary hunting and ruffed-grouse hunting.”  Any criticisms of the essays contained in the book could only be made by non hunters….non-gun dog hunters.  For us (and I include myself as a lover of hunting dogs and all things birdy) Mark strikes a cord with his tales, stories where the details and names may be different, but we can insert ourselves deeply into them which take us right into the tag alders and popple with Gunnar and Ox or our own dogs.  I had a difficult time just getting past the first sentences Mark had written.  My thoughts were- “Thanks a lot Parman!” for in the preface, he describes Gunnar and Ox, his hunting companions I had a chance to hunt over years earlier, who sadly had died before the completion of the manuscript.  In his essay- “In Praise of Old Dogs” the words on the page before me blurred from wet eyes reading the final description.  I knew full well why- Ruger, my beloved Golden Retriever, has been gone for less than a year and thoughts of so many grouse hunts with him quickly returned…and how much I missed him.  I more than understood the words Mark had written there.

It was interesting reading a book with names and locations you know well, for some of the grouse woods Mark describes are ones I’ve hunted in the past.  Places like the swamp he describes in an opening essay, are a scant quarter mile from where I sat reading this opening day.  As the stories pulled me in, my mind went from the grouse haunts described in his words back to the sleet striking noisily on the curled red oak leaves outside my stand.  Look, listen, scan…then eyes back to the pages of the next story I couldn’t wait to read.  Back to an October flush in the Nine Mile Swamp (as we always called it growing up) or New Wood, then onto a full chapter on “sauntering” or the tales empty shell hulls or a winter track in snow can tell.  I could relate well to these. 

Leaves shuffle below me and my attention is snapped back to this November in the deer woods.  A red squirrel as usual.  From time to time, it became noticeably darker, as the weather tried to change from rain and sleet to snow. With that, bringing a change of sound which I need not look up to know what was happening outside the book.  Light rain strikes the leaves softly, not yet a pelting sound, then suddenly sleet takes over and the sound is more metallic and hearing any animal approaching would be difficult.  The pellets gave way to the softness of snow landing on the oak, and all sound is muffled.  Snow has the effect to mute all sounds now-distant gun reports or a nearby foot fall on the forest floor.  On this day, the sound changed in waves as the precipitation moves between frozen and liquid.
 It became increasingly hard to bring myself back from the stories of Gunnar and Ox and the author to the deer hunt.  A Hairy Woodpecker flits by and rakes the bark of the nearby black cherry tree-my eyes lift for a quick scan of each shooting lane, and back down...all clear.  I was lost in this book.  Parman describes “Getting Lost-Staying Lost” in one essay, which is a bit different than the state I was in while reading, but one I understood well.  Hunting a new unfamiliar area is a little present to oneself because it is full of so much discovery.  We only get that chance once.  I remember a quote from my learning years in the woods, perhaps from Daniel Boone or some other woodsman-“I’ve never been Lost, but I have been a bit bewildered at times.”  I believe, like Mark, that being lost in a hunt isn’t always such a bad thing.  I usually pride myself at being good at a sense of direction, of scanning a map and formulating a plan for the hunt (or hike, ski or mountain bike adventure).  Of course, as Parman describes, a bird dog changes all that, the hunter following where the dog leads and any logical plan for the hunt can quickly change, but that is the nature of hunting.  A good thing once again.

“A Grouse Hunters Almanac” roughly follows a Wisconsin grouse season, from early warm leafy days, through the prime 6 weeks Parman talks about in October and early November.  There is the interruption of the deer gun hunt and associated herd reduction seasons, which start to signal the end of his beloved bird hunting.  The book finishes with the last days of the year, still open for grouse, but more for a chance to get back into the woods with shotgun in hand and dog alongside.  Not only does Mark follow this yearly cycle but also the seasons of the hunter and dog’s lives, which become so intertwined.  In “Gunnar’s Last Hunt” and “Counting in Dogs” I struggled to turn the pages and my reading pace slowed for I knew how these stories would end.  A short distance from where I sat, I remember a last hunt, the final day cruising my dads land for “partridge” with Max, my first dog.  A good wing shooter I am not, so on that cold December day, when Max hit a scent cone, pushed headlong into black berry brush and popped a grouse into the air, I amazed myself at connecting on the bird.  He dove in and brought the bird back to hand, wings still flapping his face and I couldn’t praise him enough, knowing he had been sick with cancer during that fall.   Like Parman and his Gunnar, at the time I didn’t realize this would be our last hunt together, but in reflecting on it later, that one flush, that one shot and one last retrieve is the way all old dogs should spend their last days afield.  Since that day, two other dogs would hunt with me, Dewey, a black lab and Ruger, a mellow golden retriever like Max before him.  Not pointers like Marks preferred hunting dog, but still, a hunting companion who can make all the difference in the world while clawing thru brush on a bird hunt and ones who are sorely missed because of the memories they made.

 Those dogs never quite lived up to Max in the woods, but like Parman, the arrival of a new dog helped ease the pain of losing a faithful four legged partner.  A year or so ago, Molly arrived, not a pup, but a four year old and just like all the promise Fergus brought to the Parman home for future trips to the wood, so Molly for me.  So far, she has done well, but it’ll never erase the pang of old dogs lost.  In  “Counting in Dogs” I found his final essay to be the perfect words to conclude the almanac.  More stories will be written of future hunts, but for this book, this chapter brought me back to reflect on life, my relationship to the outdoors, time spent there with my dogs and how all too quickly we all find ourselves past the prime days of October.  “That day, with Ox hobbling beside me, my life, measured in dogs, looked terribly short.”  With those final words, I realized as well, that if Molly is blessed with a long lab life, like Mark, I may only have one more dog to share my fall hunts with.  And maybe that thought, more than any other from this book, is what hung over me on this November day as I slowly, very slowly closed the cover...not wanting the story to be over.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Hay Creek Hunt #2

Molly and Me ;)
Sometimes there are advantages in numbers. Or to say it another way, numbers do count. I had written a couple weeks ago about a first hunt on a game farm and the experience of hunting over placed birds....not as easy as one would think, even with dogs. A that time, my good friend Dave and I and our two labs spent the better part of a day at Hay Creek Game Farm near Sand Creek Wisconsin and returned home with seven birds and plenty of stories on the drive back.

We returned to visit Bill and Lynn at Hay Creek again, this time armed with two other great friends, Mike and Moe, two hunting companions who usually make the trip to North Dakota each year with us. The trip west couldn't happen this year, so I suggested we get the dogs to the game farm where they would get plenty of shooting and the labs a great workout. Once again, our hosts did an excellent job of making our hunt memorable. Adding two more shooters and two more shotguns to the mix on the same number of birds, almost assured us of a decent percentage of pheasant to take home this time. Dave and I managed seven of twelve birds, but this time, the four of us would take eleven for twelve, although a few were scratch birds. Bill had asked us how hard of a hunt we wanted, so we decided to take the hunt up a notch and the birds were scattered over a much larger field, with tougher cover. Putting those birds up was no easy matter, and without the dogs I doubt we'd have found many at all. The advantage of four of us was we could cover ground more thoroughly and the labs would work back and forth between us until a scent cone hit them and it was bird-on!
Tall Grass Rooster and Molly
I've found that there is nothing more enjoyable than watching the dogs do what they are bred to do. It absolutely makes the hunt. Barley, the chocolate lab veteran has a great nose and seldom is wrong when she gets birdy.  Molly, my new black lab, continues to improve each hunt and complements the older dog (who is related, from Dakota Labs Kennel in Chippewa Falls) and I couldn't be more proud of her progress. Even with four of us marking downed birds in tall grass, without those noses and retrieving instincts, we would have lost many of the birds we put down.
Mike and Dave with Tough Bird
Any hunt will have it's share of ribbing and joking around, but adding our two hunting partners to the mix I think multiplies the laughter by a factor of ten. Doesn't matter if it's a great crossing shot made or missed or perhaps a connection with a bird a bit to early in the pellet spread, someone will say something about it. As serious as we are about bird hunting, wanting to be safe and successful, it's the story time afterwards  around the pick up that makes these hunts so much fun and memorable.
The first Field Pass
After the hunt, we quickly dressed the birds and headed them for the cooler. Bill meanwhile, gave an impromptu demonstration of a few of his high quality labs who were dying to get out of their boxes and train a bit. It was amazing to watch how well each dog performed for Bill, who spends countless hours on voice and hand signals. These are national champion caliber labs and it was fun to see performance at that level. Molly and Barley would have a long way to go, but at this point of the day, they were content to rest in the truck and watch the show as well. They were spent.

The numbers of pheasants lined up at our feet for the obligatory group hunt photos (labs, of course, included) really didn't matter. Rather it was the number of memories shared with best friends from this perfect day in November in NW Wisconsin that count, and how these stories of the day will probably change over the years. So in this case, those numbers do count.  And that is just fine with me.
Six Hunting Companions

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Twangfest 29

Norb in Game Face Mode
There are things that we sometimes do that require effort, that are outside of our daily routine.  Things that would be easier if we didn’t bother, if we stayed in our comfort zone of modern life instead of stepping outside (literally) to live something greater from time to time. To live life.  Those were my thoughts on the first late night of Twangfest this past week when I looked up into the night sky at all those billions of stars, listening to the darkness and the muffled sound of guitar and song from inside our trailer.  Yes, this weekend does require effort-gathering all our hunting gear (if we can find it), driving or flying hours to arrive here in the Black River country, buying food and supplies and leaving everything else behind for a few days.  But the payoff could not be greater, a chance to be back together with hunting partners and friends every year at this same time.  To spend countless hours in the stand, seeing, hearing and smelling what we miss in our usual routine.  To be a participant in the hunt instead of an observer and to ever dream of that chance at a trophy.  Trophy or not, time spent in the woods at Twangfest is always a success.
Movement in the Pines
This year was the 29th or…….30th anniversary of “Twangfest,” a term coined many years ago for a weekend campout and bow hunt in the hills near Black River Falls, Wisconsin.  At that time, we were young, mostly in college at UW La Crosse and would make weekend pilgrimages to hunt whitetails as a break from study and jobs.  Soon an idea was born to camp and hunt-requiring a lot of scrounging for a bunch of college kids then.  Years rolled into decades, and we all moved onto real jobs, families,  and other locations. New family came into our lives and sadly, the loss of family members as well, but one thing remained a constant-our annual return to the archery deer camp called Twangfest.
The Nixter
Our love of the hunt and hunting brought us together then, and remains the key ingredient even now, but the camaraderie, brotherhood and music, food, drink and laughter is what bring us back.  It is the first thing on my calendar each year.  It has always amazed me that for many of us, this is the one time each year we see each other, but it feels like yesterday.  That is how strong the friendships are here.  The first meeting is the best- real man hugs and a genuine joy of being back together.  That lasts for all of a few minutes and then the unloading of tons of gear begins-quivers and bows to beer and brats.  Sleeping bags, guitars, and the latest do dad from Gander Mountain and Cabelas.  Piles of food, and camo clothes and boots lay scattered inside the trailer in an instant.  There is also a sense of urgency as well-this IS the first day and we have had dreams of that big buck-fueled by recent game cam photos and smart email chatterin in the days leading to this.  Within an hour, dust is settled and civilian clothes are now exchanged for camo clad men, fittling with sights and arrows and few practice shots.  Soon the sound of my tapping toe impatiently waiting to “get going” and begin the actual hunting phase of the weekend.  We eventually are bouncing down the logging road and soon hours pass in the stand we again realize how much we are blessed to be able to experience this.  Yes, it took effort, but to be out here…in nature, in the woods, is primeval and beautiful and deep down something we long for I believe.
The Morning Hunt Report
Each morning and evening hunt (with just enough time for a sandwich in between) is always followed by the deer report.  “What did you see?”  “Okay, what’s the scoop?” And of course, there are tales of misses (me this year sadly at a large large buck), getting nailed down by a too smart doe, “bambies” milling around and the grunts of big bucks chasing.  The stories are again re-told at every stop as we pick up all seven of the hunters on the way back to camp.  Sometimes the stories even change, which is all okay with me.  Over the past 29  (or thirty) years, we have had many good years of harvesting a deer or two…or three.  Some does, some very nice bucks, but not always, and that is okay as well.  It’s all about the hunt and the brotherhood.  Funny, I don’t think I use that term (and I do mean it)  in any other context all year, except in describing these guys I spend the first week of every November with. 
Lem on Johnny Cash
Besides the pursuit of deer, music has become a central element in the fest.  Our group is blessed with several talented musicians (not including myself) and before the meal is done and dishes washed, guitar cases are flung open, cheater glasses on (to read lyrics now a days) and endless tuning begins.  Requests are made and familiar songs ring out inside the trailer or around the campfire.  Favorites include “Ladder Stand,” “Paper Products (from Mosinee)," and a new hit-“The Easement Blues,” along with lesser know songs of Elton John, Peter Gabriel and REO Speedwagon .   Song and laughter continue until the realization that the wake up call (my duty it seems) comes early and we better retire.  Music has entertained us over the years, as well as skits, impressions and other ridiculousness  which we so love and leave our guts sore from laughing all weekend.
The Bus Stop
The “last day” feeling always starts for me on the evening hunt Saturday.  Knowing  that this is the last night stand, that our time is drawing (pun intended) to a too quick end leaves a pit in my gut.  One last chance for that well placed shot and maybe a buck of a lifetime.  Not everyone can stay til the end- too long of travel back home or family commitments take some away early and there is a sadness when each guy pulls out of the logging road.  The final morning is the hardest….knowing that getting a deer today will require a lot of extra effort to get back to camp, pack, transport home and process before the work week, but we just have to try one more time…this still is about the hunt and you have to put the tree time in-there are no shortcuts.
The Mid-day Break

All too soon the packing and cleaning start in a flurry.  A good friend lets us use the old trailer (and his land) as our Twangfest HQ and to him we are indebted.  So we take extra care to leave everything better than we found it and leave behind enhancements (hopefully) for the other hunters who stay here.  Since some of the guys live out of state, they usually are on the road first-hours of travel for them ahead.  I’m the lucky one I guess, a short half hour drive to Neillsville and I’m back home, still wanting to turn around and drive back up those bluffs to hunt a bit longer.  But the one key thing would be missing, and it would not be the same until next year, when that band of brothers return to again to live Twangfest another year.
The Twangfesters of 2011

Monday, November 7, 2011

First Game Farm Hunt

In a effort to get more birds in front of my lab-in-training, I decided to look into booking a game farm hunt while in North West Wisconsin. I had four days to hunt and besides checking out some state land and the Rusk county forest, I thought a first time game farm hunt might be a good thing to try. I have real mixed feelings about big game "ranches" but look at small game farms as a chance to train the dogs, and get some shooting in, which can come few and far between at times on my own. Checking the area, we found Hay Creek Game Farm outside of Sand Creek WI. Bill, the owner and his brother in law partner run a nice, high quality farm, with plenty of opportunities to hunt. Dave and I were rookie preserve hunters, so armed with a lot of questions, we made the hour drive over through sprinkles and overcast sky with our gear and labs in tow. Bill was great about just letting us scratch hunt birds on their section of property until our scheduled hunt time. Scratch hunting is like the "real" thing and we scoured the edges of fields and marshes hard, putting up just a couple birds, but giving the dogs a chance to really work.
Dave and Rooster

When our scheduled hunt started, we were a bit skeptical of the small field we were to hunt-how hard could it be to find the birds there? Plenty hard! That small field became a two hour hunt and we never did put up all the birds that were supposed to be in there. The dogs figured things out after a while and I loved watching those to labs work like Hoover vacuums sucking up scent as they worked the cover. Even though the most wily roosters escaped too far out, we did manage to put a half dozen birds down that the dogs eagerly retrieved. By the end of the day, we (and the pups) were plenty tired and it was off to clean our game and spend more time chatting with Bill. He does some great donations for hunts, supports young hunters and makes a game preserve hunt attainable for the average working man. Overall a great day spent in the hills of Dunn County and a super experience for us and our four legged hunting partners.