Archive | December, 2011

Answering The Call of ‘Whatever’

30 Dec

There comes a time in life when preparing to be out there is as much, or more, fun than the actual expedition.

It’s like the phases of a hunter’s life. The growth from how many to how that seems to be a universal experience.

Just as universal is the young man’s thought, while watching an older hand putter around in preparation for an outdoor event: “That’ll never be me.”

But it is, eventually.

My late father-in-law, Ken Roush, summed it up for me once. He was getting ready for an annual expedition into Canada in his motor home with fishing boat in tow. During the day he had referred repeatedly to “the list,” and had tweaked and double checked items and issues that I knew he never let lapse on a day-trip.

So I observed that the difference between us was that I would squeeze in time in advance of an adventure to ensure that gear was in shape, packed and ready; but it appeared he was really enjoying himself.

“I do enjoy it,” he said. “It’s all part of the trip, and sometimes it’s the best part of the trip.

“You can’t always predict how a trip is going to turn out. Fish don’t bite, weather turns sour, one of your partners gets sick, the truck breaks down – there are all kinds of things that can disappoint you on a hunting or fishing trip.

“But preparation? You can control everything when you’re getting ready, and that makes it fun. You grease reels or load new line on them; you touch up everything so you know that when you get there, everything you can control is under control.

“Then you just take your chances.”

And I remember thinking, “That’ll never be me.”

This summer we went up to Wisconsin to fish for salmon out of Algoma. The two weeks prior to the trip were spent in serious preparation, and it was a hoot. Now part of that might be that when you don’t have a regular, full time job, you have the time to putter.

And it seems outdoors guys, given time to putter, will fill that time puttering.

This winter Susie and I will travel to Louisiana’s Grand Isle to fish for trout and red drum and whatever else will pull our string, and the puttering has begun. Because this is a first-ever trip to that part of the world, the preparation is earnest.

We’ve loaded new lines on rarely used “big” spinning reels. (Most of our spinning needs involve bluegills, walleye, etc. and require only tiny ultra light reels. The reels we have for more serious fishing hadn’t been used for years, so we needed to clean them up and make them ready.)

And “the list” is in full production.

Packing for a week in the out there more than 1,500 miles from home requires planning.
There is plenty of gear and clothes on the list already, and it’s growing.

While we dream of screaming runs from powerful fish on idyllic days afloat, we can control only that our gear is ready for whatever.

It’s the call of “whatever” that drags us out there and leads us to prepare with passion as we understand that this is all just part of the trip.

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Puppy Chow

21 Dec

One of the treats of living a life out there is sharing it with a canine partner, and we’ve been fortunate to have shared our times with some really fun and challenging Labrador Retrievers. Yellow, male, Labrador Retrievers.

But the hardest part of letting these loving, loyal partners into your family is that they eventually have to quit. They wear out so much faster than we do. You give your heart, your family’s heart, to them with the knowledge that down the road you’ll be grieving.

It goes the same way every time.

We’re a family with one dog until that dog is retired from hunting. Then the new dog comes on board, runs the old dog crazy, and takes over as the No. 1 dog in all things but mealtime.

It’s been that way for more than 40 years.

The first lab was “Shackaboo,” a 2 and ½-year-old beauty rescued from a family that didn’t have any idea of what it had, and no time for it if they’d figured it out. By the time Shack came home with us, he would sit, stay and come if it pleased him and he thought the only purpose in my throwing a retrieving dummy was for him and me to play “catch me if you can” once he had it in his mouth.

He was hyper to say the least. And protective. If you came to the car he never growled. If you reached in, as if to pet him, he just bit you. It wasn’t personal, just business.

We got him in Michigan in April and drove him home to Rhode Island. He was a mess, and after nearly daily calls back home to report how my efforts at turning this dog into a working retriever were going nowhere, my late father-in-law, Ken Roush, who arranged the rescue of this pup, finally, in July, told me “find him a good home; we’ll get you a puppy that’ll train when you get back here.”

Then something clicked for Shack and me.

On August 20, 1970 I separated from active duty and we packed ourselves back to Michigan with Shack taking up the entire back seat of our 1969 Pontiac Firebird. The week before we departed Rhode Island, we went to a street fair in the village of Narraganset. Shack walked at heel (on a leash that never went taut) all day. At one point, when we wanted to see the inside of an historic church, we left the leash loop over the top nut on a fire hydrant, told Shack to “stay,” and went inside.

After 15 or 20 minutes, we came back to find Shack sitting where we’d left him, with a huge puddle of drool under his muzzle and two little boys teasing him with the last bites of their ice cream cones. But that dog’s butt had never left the concrete where we left him.

After discussing the pros and cons of teasing a strange dog with a treat, the boys agreed this well-behaved dog had earned the treats they’d offered, and with Susie murmuring “gently” Shack took each in its turn without touching a finger.

Shack lived to be 14, and hunted until he was 12. The last two years of his life, he lived with Whiskey Creek White Lightning III. In every hunter’s life there are key moments, key markers in time and any number of “THEs” as in “THE best dog,” or “THE best shot” or “THE best day.”

Lightning was a “THE.”

In his prime, Lightning weighed 103 pounds with minimal body fat, and was a gentle giant in every situation. When our son was young, he learned to stand by crawling over to the dog, taking double-handfuls of his back and holding on as the big guy slowly got up, stood there a tolerable time as Casey grinned and cooed, then shook gently, disengaging the little guy, and slowly walking upstairs where he could sleep in peace.

Lightning’s salad days happened to mesh with mine in terms of hunting. I was crazy about ducks and geese, and he made 19 consecutive retrieves on the opening day of the 1980 duck season in Michigan. It was Lightning’s first birthday, and Gene Baxter shot 18 pintails at 10 points per bird right in the kill zone in front of the blind. All day I just sent Lightning and welcomed him back. By the end of the day, Gene turned to me and said, “David, I think this dog’s got it, don’t you think you should shoot at least one duck today?”

I did, and that drake mallard was the first of hundreds Lightning would bring back in his 12 years. He hunted right up to the end, and we went a year without a hunting-age pup, but “Mazaska Lake Jake” was already in the wings, waiting his time.

All of our Labs have been great house pets in addition to what they added to our days afield, but Jake was a handful. He and I got divorced almost monthly between January and October because of his aggressive and disobedient behavior around the house.

But our love affair was reborn each fall. This dog was THE meat hook. One of the first retrieves he ever made was on a poorly shot mallard that started swimming for the cattail marsh as soon as Jake was sent. I took one look at the distance separating the two and turned to “The Doctor” Bruce Plante and said, “You’re not going to eat that duck.”

But 10 minutes after both critters disappeared into the cattail maze, we heard Jake find the lakeshore and start our way. He found an opening somewhat adjacent to our blind, and the next thing we knew he was swimming back to us complete with a very lively mallard.

We hunted for three more years before we lost a cripple with Jake. That bird out-swam him and dived under the ice. Jake had seen that act before and brought back the bird, but this time he was too far behind when he dived under the ice and had to turn back – which I was really pleased to learn he could do.

We got the current ruler of our roost, “Indy’s Lost Ark Raider” in July of 2003, and immediately took him on a July 4th expedition to Lake Superior. In fact, his first 4 weeks in our household found him spending more nights in other places than home.

He became very familiar with our 17-foot Aqua Sport as we trolled lakes Michigan and Superior for game fish, and drifted our own Mazaska Lake for walleye and bluegill.
Ark is/was a pointing lab. Now 8 going on 80, he’s the victim of a touch of heat stroke that he acquired on the opening day of 2008 in Oregon. As soon as I realized just how hot he was, I rushed him off the mountain to a hose outside the landowner’s house.

I thought it was in time, but the next day he was less than interested in the game, and on the following day, during our morning walk that had always included an up-close and personal visit with a covey of quail, he never gave them a second look.

Every now and then after that, he would show a bit of his former self, but for the most part, he’s been a wonderful partner in a duck blind. Now he’s regressing at an unbelievable rate. Even when he marks a down bird it takes a number of false starts before he’ll finally take a line and fetch the bird.

This new regression to puppyhood has cost us some lost cripples. Now he’s just as apt to bark at decoying birds as he is to retrieve one.

Our dogs are a “womb to tomb” deal. We’re not the NFL. We don’t ditch pups for having a bad year. Ark will live out his life in comfort with occasional misery when I take off with the “interloper” and leave him behind. Susie will feed him treats and loving pats that will take the sting out of being benched. Of course, if we catch a break, he’ll be sleeping on the good ear when we leave and he’ll never know we’re gone.

So now we’re in the classic Balcom family mode of finding a puppy.

“Susie, there’s a litter of pups just up the road in Oskaloosa. I wanna go up and give ’em a look, whaddya say?”

And her answer will be true to the last three times this conversation started: “You go look. I’ll go buy the Puppy Chow.”

How Did She Do That?

13 Dec

I was probably born to be out there every chance I got.

Growing up on the very end of a dead-end street that stopped at the Flat River in central Michigan, the bayous, flats and woods down river attracted me from day one … even despite the dire threats Mom made if she caught me in or around the river itself.

We grew up fishing bluegills, bass and pike and chasing rabbits and an occasional pheasant with my dad, the basics for a sporting life were instilled early: never point a gun at anything you don’t mean to kill; keep a tight line even when the fish is running, and never take anything from the wild you don’t plan on eating.

But that was it.

About the time I was 11, my older brother, Richard, got a fly rod, one of those spring-loaded reels with a DT6 floating line (DT stood for “double taper,” and that kind of size determination was abandoned sometime around the release of the movie “A River Runs Through It.”)

About the time my brother went off to the service, I was introduced to A.J. McClaine, Ted Trueblood, Corey Ford and Ed Zern – all members of the staff at Field&Stream Magazine. There weren’t many magazines in our household, but my best friend then and now, Steve Wyckoff, had plenty of outdoor magazines lying around his house, and one day I picked one up and started reading.

A new world of respect for everything we find out there opened to me on those pages. I don’t know if it’s me or the magazine, but a few years ago I took a trial subscription only to cancel it. I found it too slick, too hip, too sophomoric and too basic.

But in 1960, to a kid in Greenville, Michigan, those writers were worldly beyond belief. I could imagine myself fishing an aspen-lined Rocky Mountain stream for cutthroat with Ted Trueblood. That was not his real name, but who would have idolized Cecil Whittaker?

And, while I’d never seen a Bloody Mary or known anyone who drank such a thing, I could imagine being a member of Zern’s 5th Avenue Rod, Gun, Bloody Mary and Labrador Benevolent Society. I must have sent 50 letters to the magazine trying to earn one of those lapel pins, but it never happened.

And as I read Steve’s hand-me-down issues all that year, wondering at the skill and knowledge of Fishing Editor McClaine, I started coveting the thrill of “matching the hatch” and that lead directly to my brother’s fly rod, gathering dust in his closet.

As it turned out, years later, I caught my first brook trout in the Flat River, but that was way upstream from Greenville, not down below my house, just downstream of the city’s wastewater treatment plant.

On my stretch of the river, the target specie was horned nose dace, a small rough fish that feeds on anything that doesn’t eat it first. A big one goes six inches or so. But it turned out that they take a fly off the surface, no matter how badly cast or presented, just like a trout.

By the end of my 13th summer, with help from my mentors at F&S, I had mastered all the basic casts and presentations for dry fly success.

I have never become a true fly-fishing expert. I don’t know bugs, terms or tackle to any great extent. I have tied some of the worst looking flies – from nymphs, to sulpher drake caddis, to huge pike flies, and I’ve caught fish on all of them, but that just proves how impossibly easy catching fishcan be – especially if you’re fishing in Newfoundland or some backwater beaver pond that has never seen an artificial presentation.

By the time I’d earned my driver’s license, I had completed my apprenticeship on the small streams in my county. West Branch Creek and Fish Creek in those days offered native and planted fish, and along with Steve and other buddies, we quickly learned their secrets.

The big name streams in Michigan – the Pere Marquette, Manistee, and Au Sable – were a different story. Then, as he always had, Mr. McClaine came through with an article on “reading the river,” and he talked about learning to break the big water down into a series of small streams flowing alongside each other.

Armed with that concept, it was just a matter of time until the evening I found myself standing crotch deep in the Big Manistee River, near Sharon, where the river flowed narrow between two small islands.

I was fishing bait, and had drifted a worm down into the run that cut under the bank, and had just felt the first hit from a trout down there. With visions of meeting one of the monster brown trout the river is known to hold, I let the fish run away with my bait, knowing it would then stop, spit the bait, turn it and inhale it again, this time swallowing it to the point my barb could find a hold.

As I waited for those sensations to be delivered up the line and down the rod, I noticed a hen mallard, with a whole bunch of little fluff balls trailing behind her, swimming up the river.

Those babies had to have just hatched. They looked like the tops of dandelions gone to seed; as if any gust of wind might send them out of control.

I held motionless, watching their approach with real interest.

When the hen got abreast of me – probably 20 feet to my right – she lost her nerve, and turned tail downstream with her brood in tow.

As they disappeared around the bend, I set the hook on my prize and reeled in a keeper, no monster, brown.

After dealing with the fish I put a new worm down in the hole just as I saw the hen coming upstream again, brood in tow. And, again, just as she got abreast of me, she lost her nerve and fled.

She tried to swim past me four times as I waited, wondering when she’d realize I was no threat to her or hers, but each time she would get just up to me, not near, just abreast, when she’d turn and flee.

I was so interested in her, I forgot all about my bait. I just stood there in the failing light of dusk, within arm’s reach of the shore, and waited to see what she’d do next.

I saw her coming up the river again, but this time she was alone, and she was certainly having a tough night. Flapping an obviously injured wing, she was quacking, splashing and struggling in a heart-rending display of wildlife tragedy. As she gamely fought her way up to my level, something dawned on me and I turned to look at the game trail running up the island practically under my elbow and sure enough there were the babies, in a single file – I’m sure I counted them, but don’t really recall just how many there were – but something like a dozen anyway.

Those little birds were scooting along as fast as their little legs could carry them. They got about 20 feet upstream of me, made an immediate left and plopped themselves into the water, swimming like crazy out into the middle of the current.

I turned back just in time to see the hen undergo a miraculous recovery. She flew to the head of her brood, landed and wiggled her tail feathers in what seemed to me to be a jaunty “so there!” gesture.

I’ve recalled that episode with wonder and awe over and over again in the past 48 years of being out there. I’ve seen many momma birds put on the busted wing act over those years to draw me away from a nest, but I’ve never figured out how that mallard got her babies to play their part.

About this blog

8 Dec

One of the great treasures of spending time “out there” is witnessing the break of day from a duck blind or on a deer stand.

Every one is different. The variations depend on the season, the current weather and your level of involvement in the proceedings.

My friend David Schwarz once described a spectacular display of dawn from our boat blind as, “…colors not found in nature.” In fact, the most amazing dawn displays are to be found in a cattail marsh when the bluebird weather is in full flight.

The deer woods, on the other hand, with the cold November wind chasing brooding clouds across the dark sky, is more of an enlightening than a day break. The autumn nude trees are just part of the inky dark as the light of day seeps into your consciousness. Then there is a distinct bole of a tree, a definition of shape and form that emerges. The eyes strain to make out the next shape, further into the undergrowth.

Then, in what appears to be a flash of awareness, you can see the details of the landscape, and you would make out a deer shape if one happened to be near by.

Summer dawns on sheet-flat water with mist slowly rising are a great time to be out and about, but they lack the spice of anticipation that makes the moment so special to a hunter.

For more than 50 years, the lure of fish and game have dragged me out of bed to witness the changing of night to day in places as far flung as Newfoundland and Southern California and many spots in between.

Sure, we get up early to fish, and my best fishing partner – Susie – once surmised that we did that because we could catch the fish when they opened their mouths to yawn.

This year, opening of the firstIowagun-deer season was greeted by low, overcast clouds and a chilly, day-long rain. The first day gave us a look at three squirrels, a song bird of undetermined specie and one crow.  Deer were much too smart to move around in such conditions.

Day two opened as clouds interrupted a spectacular star show and kept the sunrise a secret, letting light tip toe into the woods. That morning a young doe walked away; that afternoon, another, larger doe, didn’t.

We’d been watching that barren doe all summer, and I had long decided that given the opportunity to harvest that animal, I would. I love the hunt, and the harvest. But most of all I love venison.

Deer hunting for some is about horns. For me it’s about the entire process from scouting, to waiting, to shooting, to preparing the animal for the kitchen, and, finally, the dining.

On Sunday, it had been just two weeks shy of 35 years since I’d last taken a doe from the woods. It’s easy to mark that date in my memory because the hunt took place just after I’d delivered my mother-in-law to theHarrisburg,PAairport. Ruth had been visiting for two weeks following the birth of our daughter, Molly.

The following year, on opening day, I shot a 5-point buck. It was a turning point in my outdoor life. I had the deer home and hanging when Susie came out of the bedroom to wonder what I was doing.

“I’m wondering what I’m going to do for excitement now that I no longer hunt deer.” She was curious why I wouldn’t be hunting deer in the future, and the answer was simple: I had just shot a buck and my pulse never changed. I had merely gone to nature’s meat market, and while I valued the experience, I had stolen someone else’s thrill. If I had passed on that buck, and it had wandered further down the ridge to another, less jaded hunter, it would have fed both his ego and his family.

I vowed that morning that when it came to venison, I’d forever be satisfied with feeding the family. That year I found that decoyed waterfowl could thrill me more than any deer with horns ever had. So, now I hunt my own little stand of woods inIowa, and collect a doe for the food value and chase ducks and geese for the thrills.

These are the kinds of decisions we all make in our lives, but to make them about the outdoor world, you have to be out there.

That’s what this enterprise is all about: Sharing the thoughts and stories from a lifetime of “being out there.” Some of those stories will boggle your mind just as the events boggled ours when they occurred. Some of the thoughts and insights that were born in that still, dim light as we waited for the first flight of birds or the first glimpse of a deer we hope will make you smile or shake your head, and some will actually make you think, “boy is he out there.”