Friday, November 13, 2015

Twangfest 2015

The turn signal clicked off and the pickup started to roll down the steep blacktop township road north of Black River Falls. Moments earlier, the long shanked padlock was daisy chained to an odd set of other locks securing the steel gate of the hunting land. A sappy sad moment for me for I had that duty. The 33rd, 34th, or 36th Twangfest had come to it's conclusion.

The bowhunting weekend has been a tradition with a bunch of my friends since our days in college at UW LaCrosse in the early eighties. Quick Sunday trips to Jackson County to bow hunt turned into long weekends of camping in late October or early November each year. None one seems to be able to nail down the exact “first Twang.” At that time we were busy graduating from college, moving to other towns and cities, starting careers-beginning the adult life.

Luckily for us, Twangfest was a consistent reason to pull us back together each year. For most of the 7 or 8 of us, we've been back over three decades...and counting.

The Black River Falls area has been our home base, landing on three properties through the years. Fortunately, we have connections through parents who are generous land owners and allow us to gather each year and hunt their land. We try to be good stewards of their generosity and are so appreciative in these times of shrinking hunting access. We're scattered from Neillsville to Nashville, to Chicago and Minneapolis, so having a once a year home on private property is something we're grateful for.

The 2015 edition starts like everyone before it-immense anticipation starting at about 50 miles down the road from the previous year. The prospect of the next Twangfest grows throughout the year and everyones calendar is kept clear the first week in November (prime whitetail rut, of course). Thoughts of what new “junk” (hunting gear) needs to be procured for Twang doesn't end until we pull into the gassy landing in front of the old trailer. No different for me as I made a quick stop in BRF for last minute things before heading up the steep coulee.

Typically we arrive on a Thursday late morning and hunt until Sunday noon. The first day is so much easier than the last-trucks and cars are swiftly unloaded-tubs overflowing with camo and food stuffed into the modest, if not rough old mobile home. Resident mice are encouraged to leave and stale air circulated out the door. Man hugs and back slapping abound, for most of us have pretty limited chances to see each other during the year. It's a homecoming of sorts for the “brothers.”

Greetings and catching up conversations gradually subside after the last vehicle pulls in and thoughts of hunting commence. By all accounts, we should hit the peak rut just right these four days-I'd seen a lot of sign of that in the previous scouting trips here the past week. For most of the gang, this is their only bow hunting opportunity of the year, so we try and make the best of it. New crisp camo and old ratty stuff is soon donned and practice arrows flung at a target just to be sure bows and arrows are good to go.

We hit the woods early-during the rut, animals could be moving and chasing at any time and with the expectancy of shooting a big buck running high, there was little delay. A pick-up is loaded and soon bouncing down a logging road to the far end of 200 acres with happy hunters aboard.

That first afternoon always feels like a test run of sorts, the real hunt would begin in the morning. Some of us use the same general stands and blinds each year, while others, are “not sure where to go” and skulk around a bit for the most promising spot. We use this opening p.m. hunt to get back the feel, the aura of the woods and where the deer may be. 

The general theme of the hunt at Twang this year was wind-lots of it. Forecasts looked fine temperature-wise, but strong breezes would not let up. With tall ridges and deep valleys, the gusts also circulate from all directions it seems. A steady blow from the north west most days up above was south east or variable down below where most of us hunted. Not to make excuses, but it did hint at limiting deer activity. Sadly, it's the only thing I could come up with.

One of the best parts about hunting with these guys is “story time” when returning to the truck-while I may not have seen anything, it matters little if someone else did or there is a tale to be told. Each new reappearance of someone at the pickup would begin the same: “Whatja see??? What's the story?” And the new report would be woven into the previous ones and the first ones back would need to repeat everything again. I'm never sure if it's best to tell ones tale first or last.

The narrative from the day one gathering (and every morning and afternoon sessions thereafter) was almost the same for everyone. Maybe one or two deer seen-mostly far away, very little chasing activity, no “horn monsters” and bows frustratingly remaining at rest, arrows in the quiver.

There were a few variations to that theme-a small “sixer” did peg “Junkman” as it appeared behind him-7 yards. “Polecat,” who had a divine location nestled into a quiet draw, would be skunked everyday. Nixter, directly from Nashville for his annual woods venture, seemed more surrounded by turkeys than whitetails. “Googins” (yes, everyone has a nickname) would watch helplessly as does worked in and out of the “sanctuary” on the neighbors land. “Pete” the conductor, JoJo, Claudius and I all stayed with the light-in-the-deer-sightings version. That's why it's called hunting, right?

They were long days in the stand, but as usual, we feel alert there and everyday work, news and distractions are forgotten. These woods and the hunt insulate us from diversions of real life. Maybe what we were doing was more “real?”

Evenings are filled with cooking, enjoying a few refreshments, and laughter overcoming the howling winds outside. Guitars, a bass and feeble attempts at percussion join the revival of songs echoed here each year. It's Twang-Jam time and some of us (myself especially) just sit back an enjoy watching the talent in the room come alive. The music stops only when the last few heads start to droop or tired hunters shuffle to their bunks. The Son's of the Pioneers would be blaring too loudly and too soon the next morning as our alarm-quite effective.

I'm not sure why, but this year seem to fly by way fast-all of a sudden it's Saturday, our last full day to hunt. Seemed like we just pulled in. I shouldn't be surprised I suppose-time has a way of accellerating as we get older. We were just 20 or so when this 'fest started, now we're pushing through the mid 50's. A lot has changed. Appreciate the time together more? The effort to come together worth it? Yes to all those thoughts.

My truck had the shortest drive back home after leaving the Twangfest grounds and locking the gate. I'd be unloaded, washing hunting clothes and showered before some of the guys were even half way back. Like the rest of the vehicles, mine was empty of deer- no venison from this outing, but like anything that challenges us, we'll keep coming back for the next time. I can't wait.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015



Opening day of Wisconsin's pheasant season was almost an afterthought. My mind on this bright cool October day was on building a new mountain bike trail at Levis Mound. The trail system in south west Clark County was in need of a new swoopy downhill and I knew just where it should go.

The location in the county forest had been scouted years ago. A draw, or valley between two high bluffs was perfect for a back and forth ten turn downhill run which we could ride year around. Yep, all my attention for the past couple weeks were focused on getting this done before snow flies.

A good crew showed up and with the help of a scout troop, we accomplished the task. Check that one off my list.

Then there is this hunting thing-so much to do and October is all too short-the yearly dilemma. A week ago, the temps were in the high 70's and fall colors could not have been more brilliant. Days like those lead me to the kayak or onto the bike, even with several hunting seasons I love already weeks old. I need this month to be eight weeks long.

After the last chain saw was stowed away and trail tools hung up, the truck turned away from the trailhead. A few hours left in the late afternoon and our task of singletrack building done a bit early.

Nearly forgetting, I realized the pheasant opener started a few hours earlier at noon. The central part of the state really doesn't have any native birds, but the WIDNR does stock some state property, which I enjoy getting the lab onto. Decision made-run home, grab the dog, a vest and the double 20 gauge.

It was almost a relief to now have a plan for the rest of the day.

By Molly's vigorous tail wagging, she knew what was up. She sprang into the back seat like a kid and we were off-billows of gravel dust clinging closely behind.

It's a short 30 minute drive to the public land and on this day, a beautiful ride -with afternoon light and tenacious leaves still holding on painting the landscape brilliantly. Molly's panting became deeper for she knew we were getting close.

The property usually has pick-ups with eager dogs bouncing inside parked and waiting an hour before twelve. When the allotted time arrives, it's almost a race to grab the nearest field and begin the chase with shots ringing out soon afterwards. I usually avoid that rush. After the first weekend, the enthusiasm wains for the most part and many cold late autumn days Molly and I have it all to ourselves. The birds by then much more wary and scattered to the thickest edges. Those are the days I relish.

Arriving late in the day, I was surprised/happy to see my favorite one vehicle parking lot empty. No doubt, during the day, the large prairie behind it was scoured thoroughly by anxious dogs and hunters. No matter-we would work our way into the wind or wherever the dog's nose takes us.

Indian grass and big blue stem towers 6 or more feet above the ground so I keep track of Molly by the ting of her brass bell threading through the grasses. She leads us across 80 acres or so of field mixed with brush and thorny stands of prickly ash. Not pleasant there, but escaping birds like the cover. Molly does too and starts quickening her pace-a sure sign she's picking something up. The tail whipping around in circles means this is no false alarm and she buries her muzzle into several thick clumps of grass, vacuuming the scent. Two cat-like pounces followed and my thumb slid up to the safety. It's only a matter of time.

An explosion of color, tail feathers and cackling erupted from the grass dead ahead-the dogs nose proved correct. A straight away shot, the report of the gun and the lab was on the downed bird. The hunt was quickly over.

Taking the rooster from the dog, I admired it for a few seconds-albeit with some malaise and respect, as it should be.

Friend and outdoor writer Mitch Mode made the same observation in a recent piece-
"There are TV shows that I rarely watch in which the death of bird or stag is celebrated in whooping and hollering and much carrying on. I have not use for that. When one kills game it should be a private matter and if one does not feel a measure of remorse in that killing then I have no use for them. I pocketed the birds; moved on."

I followed suit-peace was made and the bird slipped into my vest, the gun broken across my elbow. “Good girl Molly, Good girl.”

Maybe my body language said something or the double barrel cracked open across my shoulder-not sure, but Molly seemed to know our limit was filled and I wouldn't be shooting again this day. I'd hoped she might pick some up and get “birdy” on the long hike back, but her interest had subsided and she mostly trotted alongside.

Shadows were long arriving back at the truck and the sky started to flush out with color. We'd sit here for a bit and savor it. The dirt bank of the parking area would make a good seat and having a black lab at my feet resting was a perfect end to the hunt.

These October days need to be longer-the weeks multiplied. The bike, the boat, a treestand and a shotgun with a prancing lab would all pull me in every direction starting tomorrow again. Deciding which way to go will be hard. For this day, I chose well.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Rails of the Wisconsin

Amber waves of grain.” That line echoed in my head as the kayak slid through narrow, surprisingly current laden channels of the upper Wisconsin River just north of Rhinelander. Grain, not as in wheat , barley or oats, but rather what belongs here-wild rice.
My friend Mitch Mode, an avid bird photographer (when his sporting good store releases him) and I took a rare chance to venture into the “northwoods” and slip the boats into water. Although Mitch loves photographing pretty much any winged creature-I've grown to see he has a soft spot for shore birds-birds most of us, including myself, never give much thought. They generally migrate north in the spring and return early fall to embark on the long flights to wintering grounds in the southern US and South America.
Sora Rail

Every year when I purchase my migratory license and fill out the HIP information, I'm asked the standard questions: Do you plan to hunt rails, snipe or gallinules? Although I'm an avid bird hunter, I couldn't ID many of them, for they're not game I'd seek out.

The 1300 acre Rhinelander Flowage extends upstream from Boom Lake, another back water of the Wisconsin River, formed by a major dam in downtown Rhinelander. Above the flowage, the Wisconsin twists and turns a hundred times as it snakes it's way south of the Rainbow Flowage near Lake Tomahawk. The river here has a much different character than what it transforms to in the southern part of the state. Until it empties into the rice filled flowage where we paddled, it's narrow and meanders through dense forest-quite unlike the wide flats and sand bars of the lower Wisconsin.

It's said one should use the right tool for the job, and I was totally out-gunned by Mitch's set-up. He's done this before. His kayak was a smallish plastic drab-painted and ghillie suited affair, perfect for slipping into close quarters with wildlife. The camo-theme continued with paddle, hat, shirt and long lens on his camera. No problem-I'd be sure to scare everything away with my 18' bright white kevlar sea kayak, orange vest and hat! Being a long hard chine boat was not ideal here where I'd have to twist and squeeze through narrow passages filled with tall rice stands, weeds and lily pads. No matter-I was on new water (to me) and could sit back and watch how Mitch maneuvered to get some beautiful shots. I'd keep myself and my boat out of the way.

Rhinelander Flowage

I'd probably seen Sora Rails while duck hunting out west or even instate, but to me they were just another tiny shore bird flitting around not earning my attention. As soon as we set the boats down at the launch, Mitch's ear was tuned to their call. A loud clap of his hands invoked a hail of “weep” calls from this small secretive bird. As we paddled, any loud sound would shock the unseen rails into various calls. The long high descending “whinny” was my favorite and it seemed the entire marsh was a chorus of them when Canadian geese set them off.

Although we could hear them, it took some time before one of the little marsh walkers exposed himself at the “shore” of the channel. The slate blue/grey bird nervously sauntered across water lilies in its search for small invertebrates and vegetation. Mitch pointed the tiny bird out and started shooting, while I clumsily made a wide turn and made my way back to drift in for a closer look. The rail picked along the edge, happily chirping out a “quink-quink-quink” from time to time while feeding, unconcerned with us. 

Mitch-Fully outfitted

Sora Rails are fairly easy to identify-they have a small yellow bill with a black face and “mohawk.” A short tail flashes white underneath when it's walking or launches into the air. Legs and feet are oversize for such a modest sized bird.

I think Mitch would have been quite content to spend the entire day floating and photographing here and skipping out on “real” life in town. I could see why-the rice beds attract a host of waterfowl and other wildlife. A pair of eagles soared high above, Marsh Hawks (Northern Harrier) floated just above the vegetation hunting and a copious supply of wood ducks and teal were happy to make this part of the river home among the muskrat huts.

I love nature like this. Marshes and swamps may not be as glamorous as a majestic mountain or forest, but they team with life. That spicy snappy smell you can only find here and with the slow flowing water that binds it all together. These are good and important places.

The outside world all too soon pulled Mitch from the water, but he insisted I stay an explore-which I felt obliged to do. The long boat changed gears and set about to investigate more of the deceptive passages through the rice. As long as I kept an eye on channels with moving water I felt assured I wouldn't get lost. Hopefully. 

Among the Rice

With some satisfaction, I did manage to navigate a few narrow corridors and wind up back at the launch. From time to time, I'd try Mitch's hand clap and chuckle at the response from unseen rails tucked nearby in the weeds. Cheap entertainment I guess. This flowage will have to be visited again-spring would be best, with many more migrating stop-overs passing through. A better camera (than my iphone), proper attire (and different boat??) would be along next time. As Eiseley eludes to-these are magic places and must be returned to.

If there is magic on this planet, it is contained in water. -- Loren Eiseley

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Away to the Waters

Paddling the Potters

I have need of the sky, I have business with the grass; I will up and get me away where the hawk is wheeling lone and high, And the slow clouds go by. I will get me away to the waters that glass the clouds as they pass. I will get me away to the woods.” -- Richard Hovey

There is a mystery inside me that perhaps I never am aware of, but one I realize with time spent outdoors. It's what Hovey speaks to here-a need, an obligation to myself to be outside, to see something that gives me pause, to discover a presence of what can only be experienced outdoors. I like that I never know what it'll be until it's recognized, and it's never a conscious effort.

A lot of my interests “get me away to the woods,” hunting, fishing, biking and skiing and even my job as a wildlife technician. Stepping out the door begins the best part of my day.

As if I needed another distraction, paddling entered my life full swing this summer. I've dabbled in it from time to time, and in a way, kind of feared it, because I knew I'd be pulled toward the water away from trails and other pursuits. I finally gave in...and love it.

Being inches above the water, slipping silently forward as the shores pass by, it's much different that most anything else. Quietness, save for an occasional misplaced paddle dip that splashes clumsily alongside the boat. I'm still not smooth at this. In a kayak or canoe it's easy to be taken back in time, when Native Americans used their small boats to move from place to place or inuits skillfully surviving harsh waters in the north to survive. I have a whole new appreciation of their skill.

As important as that connection to the past a kayak offers, maybe more-so, it slows me down. Mountain bikes and skinny skis tend to propel us through the woods at breakneck speed and we miss much. These boats slide calmly in the water inviting more pause, more observation, maybe even reverence of the surroundings. Speed has little place here.

These thoughts were at the surface the other day as the kayak and I pushed off from shore in central Jackson County into Potters Flowage, a 250 acre lake 20 miles east of Black River Falls. I'd known about “Potters” from fishing friends who try their luck from time to time summer and winter, but I'd never visited it. Looking at a map, it appeared perfect for a paddle-it's a drainage lake with lots of little fingers off the main body of water, and one, several miles long to the South begging to be explored.

The put-in is located at Merlin Lambert County Park off McKenna road, once the site of the bustling lumbertown of Goodyear. Nothing but elusive foundations exist east of the campground now, where in 1898 the timber supply was exhausted in less than six years. The same dwindling fate met the towns of McKenna and Zeda further to the South, now sparsely populated and covered with cranberry marshes.

Potters Flowage is best known for it's bass and panfish abundance and rumor has it muskie fishermen hit it hard in the fall. A few boats trying their luck were my only company on the water-no complaints, this is not a lake for the power boat crown. The lake has a max depth of 24 feet, but just a mean of 7, so it's shallow and weedy on the edges. Water quality is moderately clear.

I stayed along the shorelines wanting to partially circumnavigate the main part of the lake and then head down into the inviting narrows. Even with a brisk headwind, my 18' boat made it across surprisingly easy and eventually sliced through a broad expanse of lily pads to the original flooded streambed of Hawkins Creek. A ribbon of clear water here guided my adventure south deep into the county forest.

If one didn't know better, you'd swear the boat was slipping into the wilds of the boundary waters or Canada-the shore mostly lined with towering white pine-remnants perhaps of saplings loggers missed 100+ years ago. This part of the state is better known for squatty Jack Pine, Aspen clear cuts and gnarled red oak than majestic straight pine. The further I paddled, the better my surroundings became.

Morrison Creek (different from the Morrison flowing into the Black River) feeds Potters from the far east near the boat launch, while the Hawkins section of the flowage forms the wide channel I venture into, gradually narrowing and winding its way to the McKenna Creek spilling in from the far south. There are several small fingers stabbing into the forest on either side with one across from a primitive landing off Larb Lane on the west bank where folks were camping. Going around each bend was like turning a page in a book to discover something new-I never tire of that.

Potters Flowage finally squeezes down to a fork in the road so to say-one short arm leads west and vanishes, the east bound one heads further and finally succumbs to the skinny alder lined McKenna. Trails end for me. I brace the paddle far to the side and swing the long boat around to start my journey back. Skies had start to darken and I seem to remember a forecast of possible rain, so what was a leisurely cruise took on a more purposeful stroke of the blades through water. Even with some urgency, I did stick to the opposite shore than when I entered-still time to explore I thought.

Arms and back started to ache, but no complaints from the boat-she steadily cut through the water and around reeds and occasional water lilies on the return trip. I'd make it back fine-the threatening sky stayed at bay for the moment.

Campers at the county park busied themselves with Labrador retrievers, swimming and prepping small boats for perhaps a bout of fishing. I slid into the shallows near the landing and managed to extract myself from the cockpit (still tricky) and hoist the kayak on shore.

A few sore muscles were fulfilling indicators that I'd done something worthwhile, that I'd “gotten away to the waters that glass the clouds as they pass.” That “need” and obligation to myself to be outdoors had been met...for this day, and I'd be back.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Faces of the Games

The first time since I've been involved in Special Olympics, national media coverage finally discovered what we have known all along-how sport can change lives for people with disabilities and that they all have a story.  ESPN did an exceptional job covering the World Games and their writers sought out and featured our athletes narratives-so much so, that we as coaches experienced more of the public "getting it."  Not just saying they know what SO is about, but really understanding and accepting it.

Through countless interviews for TV coverage, newspaper stories, online pieces and social media, the athletes shared their lives with the world.  Smiles, high fives, hugs, ribbons and medals were their reward for hard work and dedication to their sport.  I think the joy in what they've accomplished can be reflected in their faces-pride in themselves and for everyone who has supported them.

I hope I've captured some of that-these are the athletes of our Athletics (track and field) team.

Laurene-Race Walk




Mark-Middle Distance

"D"-Middle Distance

Alex-1/2 Marathon







Karen-1/2 Marathon

Brittany- Sprinter

Olivia- Sprinter

Briana- Sprinter

Josh- Distance




Alberta- LJ

Gillian-Middle Distance

Laura-Middle Distance

Hayden-Race Walk


Dillon-Middle Distance
Steve-Head Coach

Monday, May 4, 2015

The (Almost) Grand Slam


There is a “Grand Slam” in nearly every sport imaginable and in Great Lakes fishing, anglers rarely score one. A Coho salmon, a King, Brown Trout, Steelhead and a Lake Trout. Five species- a tough spread of fish to put in the box on one outing considering their varied lake habitat. Most of the year, it would be nearly impossible. Spring does offer a limited window of opportunity-cold waters warm and many great lakes fish move nearer to shore than where they normally haunt. If a big water fisherman wets lines on just the right day, it could happen. For my fishing partners and captain, we almost did. Almost.

Good friend and charter captain Kris Davis of Northfork Sportfishing knows how elusive the grand slam can be. I try to make a couple trips down to the Kenosha marina, where Northfork is based. He's hunted down great lakes fish everywhere from Ashland to Keewaunee to southern Lake Michigan. His crew consists of Uncle Dan Davis and kids Megan and Blake-they're fisher-kids, born into the sport. I'm lucky enough to be invited to join them and I mark early May on my calendar for the coho run. We've had exceedingly good luck over the years out of the Kenosha port and the waters north and south of there.

Arriving early in the morning, Kris had the boat ready and Uncle Dan started in with jokes that had the kids eyes rolling. A prettier sunrise you won't find and glass flat water greeted us as we slipped the bounds of the break wall. My friend John Merreck joined us-a consulate inland fisherman, who loves to dabble in this big lake thing from time to time.

The report from Kris centered around slow action so far this season. He traded a first-ice-out smaller boat for the “Corkscrew,” a Luhrs 290, Northfork's usual fishing rig and one I can attest to being a perfect boat for the job. Most of the charter captain's chatter indicated the big coho run hadn't started-inconsistent weather perhaps was the culprit. Kris was confident we'd get something and predicted (as it turned out, rightly) that we'd have a mixed bag. Boats had been bringing in a few of the small salmon, a brown here and there and even a laker, which is unusual at this time of year in near shore angling.

Spring fishing usually means shallower depths and we motored out less than a mile off shore. Other fishermen had the same plan and near “the bubbler” ( Kenosha's warm water discharge) it looked like a parking lot. The water here ran 25-40 feet and had temps of 46-49 degrees. Finding exactly what depth and temps the fish liked was Kris' challenge and one he's exceedingly good at. 
Kenosha Harbor

“BING” “Fish on!” Even before we had a third of the gear down, John was on a pole cranking in a nice fish. A big 8 pound brown-perfect start to the day. When a fish is on, it's a team effort-a net is grabbed, planer board removed and who ever is battling the fish given room while the captain keeps the boat on course. Having the first fish “in the box” so early made us all pretty optimistic.

Hours passed by and the number of boats staying on the water dwindled. Kris kept the boat further out hunting for that subtle difference in water temperature where we seemed to pick up a fish once and a while. The radio talk was lamenting a lack of action by the other captains- “crickets” as they say. We kept at it and were rewarded with a nice 14# king, which fired up the boat and crew. A few more average sized cohos were boated and a real nice one....turned out to be a steelhead. Hmmmm, that's four species onboard, and thoughts of the grand slam surfaced-we'd just need that “pretty one” (A laker as the fleet calls 'em).

It was not to be-we'd miss that fifth species but not for lack of effort. For much of the day Kris had a full pull going-15 lines in the water, from 35' down to just below the surface. Downriggers, dipsy divers and the 8 little soldiers (planer boards) all trying to coax a bite. By afternoon, the Corkscrew was about the last boat on the water and we kept a few lines in all the way through the harbor entrance, just in case.

That elusive last ditch fish never took the bait so to speak, and the grand slam would be safe for another day. No matter-we felt pretty good about the excursion compared to most of the other fishermen. It was slow, but we'd put 8 in the cooler and would have great meals ahead. For John and I, who don't get on big water very often, just being out there was reward enough-as I commented when we slid through the morning water, “This pretty much doesn't suck.” I know, not very eloquent, but in the warming colors of the sunrise and cool air coming from the cold water the Corkscrew slipped through, everyone nodded in agreement.

For more information: Northfork Sport Fishing,