A unique collection of mule-deer hunting stories, biology, management, and hunting how-to’s, on North America’s top trophy. Get the inside story on where to find bucks on public lands, and why where is just as important as how.
Some of my fondest childhood memories revolve around long, broken-down rows of recently picked corn, their remnant tassels chattering nervously in the brisk autumn wind coming hard off of the Chesapeake Bay. We hunted geese there from pit blinds dug from the rich, black earth, surrounded by rafts of decoys as we peered hopefully into fast approaching storm.
Waterfowl hunting, and especially goose hunting, is the high art of the gunning world. It requires dedication, intimate knowledge of the game at hand, and specialized skills acquired and honed over a long period of time. It is generational expertise not easily attained, most often passed down from close family or good friends.
To be successful a hunter must be able to read the weather and the lay of the land, and place oneself if even for a moment in the eyes of a gander. One must present the perfect setup of form and function, in order to lure even the most gullible birds.
You must speak their language too, for one wrong note can spoil the day. Patience, above all, is key, even when standing in ice-cold water up to your knees while trying to slow down the incessant chattering of your teeth.
Bring it on, you say, all if it, for in the end there is nothing in the realm of mortals to match the thrill of cupped wings over the spread, sliding and swirling down over the gun as you tell yourself to stay calm and focus on a single bird.
Impossibly large, and bold, a canada goose has a way of unsettling even the most practiced sportsman among us, Chaos reigns, and it is a rare gunner that can stay composed under a full gaggle of decoying geese. Perhaps I can do just that, next time…
I can hear them now, honking and clawing, forever upwards towards the promise of a limitless, blue sky.
With luck, and blessings, you can see them too.
“Against the bright, luminous sky one sees just after sunset on clear, cold days the geese were etched, flock upon following flock. Those farthest away bore on with steadily beating pinions, the nearer birds beginning their glide, great wings cupped. It was beautiful beyond speech, almost heartaching to behold, and suddenly Carl was aware of the gun slanted back across his curved arm, and without reason (but with a certain knowing), he saw that the gun gave the sight a greater beauty, for it was his hunter’s soul that transfixed him at the sight of the living splendor overhead.” – Kenneth Otterson, Last Casts & Stolen Hunts, 1993
Here are a few photos from my hunt this fall in Eastern Colorado. As you can see, it was a very, very good day of goose hunting, and I wish you all, just one day, at least one day, like this too.
“As long as there is such a thing as a wild goose, I leave them the meaning of freedom. As long as there is such a thing as a cock pheasant, I leave them the meaning of beauty. As long as there is such a thing as a hunting dog, I leave them the meaning of loyalty. As long as there is such a thing as a man’s own gun and a place to walk free with it, I leave them the feeling of responsibility. This is part of what I believe I have given them when I have given them their first gun”. –Gene Hill, from A Hunter’s Fireside Book, 1972
“A lucky soul indeed, is how Edward Miller, who spent 46 years in the gun trade, describes anyone infected with ‘goose fever’.
In this lively memoir, he conveys the passion for wildfowling that gets sane people out of bed long before first light, to walk miles across dangerous tidal flats in the depths of a winter dawn, to lie flat in damp sand for hours, waiting for that evocative beat of wings to pass overhead.
Every chapter in Geese! is full of interest, amusement and advice. Camouflage, the techniques of goose-calling, how to recognise flight lines, choice of gun, what to wear, where to stay, how to behave and how to avoid overshooting, are all topics covered, right down to cooking wildfowl, including a mouth-watering stuffing of wild mushrooms and seashore blackberries.
The instructional index at the end of the book is an invaluable instant reference for the wildfowler.”
Molded from durable ABS. Express Calls give the great sound of the original Eastern Shoreman in an affordable package. Tested and tuned by Sean Mann. Unlike “flute calls” the patented design of the Eastern Shoreman creates the full range of the Canada goose’s voice. From full “throaty” lows to bright “snappy” highs, these calls will do it all.
No one truly knows how many elk are killed each year on Colorado highways, but one thing that is known for sure – the trend is rising steadily upward.
It’s a sad statistic, resulting in immeasurable losses to an invaluable resource. And of course, elk versus vehicle collisions are no laughing matter. The encounter can be, and often is, deadly for drivers and passengers.
The fall and winter months are the most dangerous times, when large groups of elk travel great distances though traditional migration corridors, often congregating near food sources in the lower elevations. Unfortunately, most of the major roadways are located here too.
So, you might ask, what’s a driver to do?
Well, to quote an oft-turned phrase – speed kills. Simple as that.
We would all be wise to slow down and enjoy the ride. Be aware, and on the lookout for this otherwise unmissable creature in the shadows of the night.
From the author of The Original Road Kill Cookbook, which has been in print for over twenty-five years and has sold over 200,000 copies. This title is targeted towards the same audience as Jeff Foxworthy, whose 2009 AMP day-to-day calendar You Might Be a Redneck was the tenth best-selling 2009 calendar and sold more than 225,000 units.
Move over Rachael Ray. Smash car driver and redneck culinary authority Buck “Buck” Peterson follows up The Original Road Kill Cookbook with more than 50 new roadkill recipes inside Quick-Fix Cooking with Roadkill.
Created for culinary cruisers on the go, each recipe can be prepared in less than 30 minutes after its roadside procurement. Consider ditch-divining recipes such as Perky Jerky, Corned Carnage and Cabbage, Freeway Frittata, Backed-Over Baby Back Ribs, Pavement Panini, and Tar-Tare.
Also included are sample tasting menus for breakfasts, lunches, appetizers, dinners, and holiday meals, as well as entertaining tips on where to shop, how to tell when an animal has given up the ghost, and how to pair your roadkill with wine.
Nothing is left to chance, except your next culinary roadkill junction. So, when there’s a fork in the road, why not pick it up and eat what’s found nearby.
“I have lived! The American continent may now sink under the seas, for I have taken the best that it yields, and the best was neither dollars, love, nor real estate.” – Rudyard Kipling, After Landing His First Steelhead in 1926
What could be finer than family, friends, and turkey dinner with all of the fixings on Thanksgiving day? Well, it could be an appetizer of ocean-caught silver salmon, filleted just right and quick frozen with care for a long plane ride home. Now that’s a slab of goodness that will really put you in the Holiday spirit!
Lucky was I, to be so invited, and it was my first, of gravlax, that is.
We owe our Scandanavian brothers and sisters for this rather simple preparation. Cured with sugar, salt, and spices, Gravlax is not as salty as Lox, and not smoked like many other salmon recipes. The result is a clean tasting, invigorating dish, and you can almost feel that beautiful, sliver bullet dancing on the line.
It’s a perfect way to celebrate a grateful day, particularly in a room full of sportsmen and lovers of all things wild.
In this title, three delightful cookbooks are brought together in one Scandinavian gift collection. It offers everything you need to know about Swedish, Norwegian and Danish cuisines with over 180 authentic recipes. This title features evocative and informative introductions that cover the history, geography and culinary traditions of each country, as well as the local ingredients. Dishes include classic Gravlax with Mustard and Dill Sauce from Sweden, traditional Roast Hare with Lingonberries from Norway and world-famous Danish Pastry from Denmark. It is illustrated with 900 beautiful photographs, including a picture of every finished dish. Nutritional breakdowns are provided for every recipe. Classic Scandinavian cuisine is rooted in the natural bounty of the land, with fresh fish from the seas, wild game from the forests, and delicious dairy from the animals that graze on the fertile pastures.
This classic captures the endearing relationship between a man and his grandson as they fish and hunt the lakes and woods of North Carolina. All the while the Old Man acts as teacher and guide, passing on his wisdom and life experiences to the boy, who listens in rapt fascination.
There are many “firsts” in the life of a hunter. Who can forget their first BB gun, a first bow & arrow, or the satisfying heft of that first box of shotgun shells of their very own.
And then there is the game to pursue. I cut my teeth on English Sparrows and Starlings, before graduating to a cadre of overeducated pigeons in our old dairy barn.
Soon I became fairly good at thinning out our local rabbit and squirrel population, with thoughts of bobwhite on my mind.
You could say that a Canada Goose, well, that was an entirely different proposition…and the thought of actually killing a goose of my own was outside the boundaries of my young boy’s possibilities…
That all changed when…
“A goose represents the rebel in all of us and because they’re wild and free, they have a certain quality that shines out and makes us wish that we were not bound to labor in life, but rather that we could drift as they do with the seasons.” – Paul S. Bernsen, The North American Waterfowler, 1972
The Author’s experience and understanding of each hunting situation is so thoroughly expressed between the covers of this book that he does for waterfowling what Isaac Walton did for fishing with his “Complete Angler”. Whether the reader’s `interest, be that of a hunter on his own farm, a hunter on public hunting grounds, a member of a sophisticated duck club or the manager of a duck club, he will enjoy and gain knowledge from this book and certainly get more birds. Combined with the personal experiences of the Author, the reader will find the book profusely illustrated with photographs and charts that tell what clothing to wear under what circumstance, an article about ammunition and guns with illustrations which show how to lead the birds in flight, how to set out decoys, airviews of lakes and ponds showing how to build them and a discussion of the various types of blinds. Throughout the text of this book we have illustrated various items. They are presented as visual aids and are intended to be representative of the field to which they are associated. There is a chapter on retrievers written in collaboration with Bert Carlson, the star of ABC’s American Sportsman Show. To duck club members perhaps the most valuable thing in dollars and cents is the sample hunting lease. Bernsen says that this has cost him many hundreds of dollars in legal fees and many more in sad experiences before it reached its present stage of perfection. The NORTH AMERICAN WATERFOWLER goes far beyond the ordinary “how-to-do-it” type book and talks to experienced gun, decoy men who can understand the fine points to get more birds at less cost and more “down-to-the-water” enjoyment. It is information unlimited.
“The roar of a wounded grizzly bear is nicely designed to try the courage of a man. It’s half snarl and half bellow, and it’s full of blood and fangs and murderous rage.” – Ben East, Brown Fury of the Mountains, 1940
October 28, 1864
“Located in Croxton Memorial Park (in Grants Pass, Oregon) is a large, concrete circle with a number of headstones imbedded in concrete. There are also two plaques that note the names of 90 individuals interred here. This park was once a cemetery for many years but neglect and vandalism forced the city to convert this lot into a city park in 1975. The headstones of the surviving graves were imbedded in concrete to prevent further vandalism and damage.
One of the graves imbedded in concrete is of Benjamin Harrison Baird who was unfortunately killed by a grizzly bear.”
KILLED BY A GRIZZLY — Mr. B. H. Baird, of Jackson county, Oregon, was killed by a grizzly bear while out deer hunting on Grave creek. The following particulars are from the Sentinel: —On the morning of the 28th, about sunrise, Mr. Baird started in pursuit of game, taking his faithful dog, Rover, with him. He proceeded about one mile and a half, when his dog bayed three grizzly bears in their bed. Mr. Baird got within fifteen yards of them, and shot the largest one, only wounding it. The bear pitched at Mr. Baird, who ran about two hundred yards, when the bear caught him and knocked his gun about sixteen feet from him. Getting loose from the bear, he sprang to the limb of a tree, the bear passing under and hitting his feet, went a short distance down the hill, when he stopped to fight the dog. Mr. B. got his gun, re-loaded it, and shot the bear the second time. The bear now came at him more furiously than before, and knocked the gun out of his hand the second time. Mr. B. swung around a bush to keep out of the bear’s reach, drew one of his butcher knives and stabbed the bear in the belly. The bear struck him several severe blows, knocking his knife out of his hand. Mr. B. then drew his second knife, when the bear seized his hand in which he held the knife, causing him to drop it. The bear now got the better of Mr. B., getting him down, biting him in the face, cutting several severe gashes on the left side, tearing out his right eye, and also tearing off all the right side of his face. It bit several large holes in his right side; in fact, bit him nearly all over his body, down to his boots. The bear now turned to fight the dog, that had saved Mr. B. from having been killed on the spot. The bear and the dog then rolled down the hill some distance, still fighting, when Mr. B. gathered up his gun, two knives, the rope with which he had been leading his dog, and started for Mr. Michael’s cabin, distance about one mile and a half, where he arrived, much exhausted, about 10 A.M., and was assisted into the house, when he related the melancholy event to Mr. McDonough. Being conscious that he could not long survive, he spoke of his family, and his desire to see them before he died. He was reconciled to meet his death, and spoke of a future happiness. He died about 8 P.M. of the same day. Mrs. Baird was sent for, and hastened with all possible speed the distance of eighteen miles, over a very rough, hilly road, but arrived about five minutes too late to see her husband alive. He was brought home and buried near the farm, some four miles north of Rogue river, near the stage road. He leaves a wife and sixteen children, eight of whom are but young, and live at home.
“…the last officially documented grizzly bear in Oregon was killed along Chesnimnus Creek by a federal trapper on September 14, 1931. According to Jerry Gildemeister’s Bull Trout, Walking Grouse and Buffalo Bones: Oral Histories of Northeast Oregon Fish and Wildlife, however, sheepherders knew of a pair of grizzlies in the Minam drainage on the far western side of the Wallowa Mountains in 1937 and 1938; one of these bears was shot.
Of course, the very last grizzly of Oregon probably escaped the notice of humankind altogether. Whether he or she died in the remote plateau forests flanking the Northeast Oregon canyonlands or the brushy breaks of the Siskiyous—or someplace else entirely—we can only offer a vague, if heartfelt, toast.
Meanwhile, Hells Canyon country has continued to cough up the occasional grizzly rumor over the decades, although it should be noted that many of the black bears here are cinnamon-phase and thus easily confused with their heftier cousins. In Oregon Desert Guide, Andy Kerr reports an alleged sighting from 1979 along Steep Creek a few miles from Homestead, and Gildemeister’s oral histories mention possible grizzly sign noted by a wildlife biologist in 1989 near Smooth Hollow, right along the Snake River below Hat Point.”
Alan Precup disappeared while backpacking in the Alaskan wilderness. Days later, searchers found his campsite. In the bushes about 150 feet away, they found Precup’s bare skeleton, one intact hand, and both feet, still booted. In his camera were the exposed frames of the bear that killed him. Chris Dunkley and three friends were hiking in Banff National Park. Suddenly a grizzly bear mother came galloping toward them. The first of three charges came so close that it broke a fishing rod in Dunkley’s hand, yet none of the party was injured. Keith Ecklund and Larry Reimer were fishing in central Saskatchewan one spring day when they were attacked by a black bear. Ecklund kicked the bear in the head to hold it off. Reimer came to help, was attacked, and while fighting with the bear, killed it with his filleting knife. An autopsy of the bear revealed parts of a third man, Melvin Rudd, in the bear’s gut. The rest of Rudd’s partly consumed body was found nearby. What can we learn from these and hundreds of other attacks and non-injurious encounters with black and grizzly bears? Of all the animals in North America’s wilderness, none command such fear, awe, and interest as the bear. Creatures that fear little, bears now compete for survival with the only other animal that can threaten their existence: humans. What do we know about black and grizzly bears and how can this knowledge be used to avoid bear attacks? For more than three decades, Bear Attacks has been the thorough and unflinching landmark study of the attacks made on humans by the great grizzly and the less aggressive, but occasionally deadly, black bear. This is the sometimes horrific yet instructive story of Bear and Man, written by the leading scientific authority in the field. This book is for everyone who hikes, camps, or visits bear country—and for anyone who wants to know more about these sometimes fearsome but always fascinating wild creatures.
“Biology plus politics equals biopolitics and this is what conservation departments are forced to play, often to the detriment of good game management.” – William Towell, Director Missouri Conservation Commission, 1957-1967
I harvested a sleek, young mule deer doe today, dropped cleanly with a fast-moving .270 caliber bullet well before the crack of the rifle had begun to die away in the thin mountain air. It was a fitting end to a hunt that had barely begun, yet at the same time a fine beginning to something so much more. Why then, did it cause a small pang of concern, like I had done something somehow wrong and irreversible?
It had not been a difficult hunt in the rugged landscape around me, where so often in the past it had been exactly the opposite. She had been standing with another doe just above a dirt access track stretching through a small parcel of public ground, and when the bullet hit her she had made one jump and came to rest in the middle of the road. A quick field dressing and a short flip to the waiting tailgate and she was off to the garage to hang and cool, and it won’t be long before some savory steaks and roasts hit the plate. It’s what dreams of wild game dinners are made of.
It was a planned meat hunt first and foremost, and in that respect it was a mission accomplished for which I do not apologize. I am a fan of mule deer for the table, though I do acknowledge that many people would disagree. To be honest, I would also admit that although I do like it, for the most part this western venison is not my favorite big game offering.
Given a choice, I would rather walk a substantial distance for some expertly grilled chops from a properly fed mid-west Whitetail. I would, and have, walked heroic distances for the well-earned privilege of packing back a heavy load of elk meat. I’ve also worn out a considerable swath of boot leather in pursuit of mule deer in all kinds of terrain, mostly in search of the all too few with some heavy horn on top of their head. I have not always been willing to walk so far just for a meal of mule deer.
This past Spring it occurred to me to try something different this year, and I don’t begrudge myself an easy hunt for a change. Lord knows that I and many of my friends deserve something short of an expedition occasionally, and one’s goals do tend to develop over time. I also wanted to give a mule deer a fresh chance in the culinary department, thinking that perhaps it might be best not to judge things on the taste of tough old buckskin taken well past their prime. A freezer full of protein also does wonders to combat the ever rising grocery bill.
The state of Colorado does issue a limited number of antlerless deer permits for the regular rifle seasons, with an emphasis on “not too many”. To my surprise I was lucky enough to draw a license for an area close to my home, which made it all the more enjoyable. The rest, shall we say, is in the books.
What I failed to mention is that they were the only two deer that we saw that morning, in spite of a three-mile hike through some once great deer country and then, later, a short drive to another area. Nor did I say that I could easily see two houses from where my doe had come to lay, and I knew that there were several more not far over the hill.
Such is the reality of things in the ever more settled west. The deer are not always located in some far often mountain valley, and sometimes you must hunt them where they are. And sometimes you hunt them in places that you used to hunt, years before, in a place where not long ago there were no houses to see.
Things are changing rapidly in the Rocky Mountains, and the once vast Mule Deer herds have been dramatically impacted by that change. Populations have been in serious decline in Colorado and other states, for reasons that are not so clear and steeped in worried speculation. To be blunt, Mule Deer are in serious trouble, and their ultimate fate as a viable species is in real jeopardy.
I, for one, did not have to read a detailed report to come to that sad conclusion. The evidence is everywhere; the end result devastating. Herd sizes have dropped by 50% since I moved to Colorado in the mid 1970’s, and the absence of deer is remarkably obvious. As a result, the number of hunting permits have been severely reduced and tightly controlled, with less than encouraging results.
For some time it is has not been easy for a resident of Colorado to obtain a deer tag of any kind, and when you do it can be difficult to locate a legal buck. Finding a trophy animal can prove nearly impossible for even the best of hunter’s. It’s just not easy being a deer hunter these days.
Unfortunately, the worst may be yet to come. It is debatable whether the herds have stopped their terrifying free fall and reached a period of relative stability. Why then, one might ask, are there any doe tags at all?
What is difficult to pin down are the exact reasons for the decline, and public opinion is wide-ranging and increasingly heated. There is great debate over the effectiveness of the overall state big game management plan, and one wonders if there is really any plan at all. One hand does not always appear to be aware of what the other is doing across state agencies, and I can only hope that in this case the harvesting of a doe somehow contributes to the overall health of the deer herd in this particular game management unit.
I have heard most of the standard theories of cause and reaction. Of course I have a few of my own, or simply evaluate all of the factors in my own way.
Some people are quick to put the blame on an overabundance of coyotes and other predators, and no doubt there is some truth to that. Others blame highway mortality, road building and natural gas drilling, and all forms of habitat loss. More than a few people say that what deer habitat that is left is of poor nutritional quality, and there is an increasing effort underway to remove sections of old growth forest and range and replace them with rejuvenated browse and plant communities. The long-term drought certainly has not helped, and maybe, just maybe, there are now just too many elk.
More than likely it is caused by a combination of all of the above, or perhaps something else entirely. I don’t know how it will turn out for the deer in the final outcome. Nor does anyone else out there really know for sure. It may be that Mule Deer are simply incapable of tolerating or forgiving the daily trespasses of man, and that their loss to history is essentially assured. That would be unspeakably sad.
I do know that the mule deer is a western icon of immeasurable proportions, and the Rocky Mountains would simply be a hollow and soulless shell of itself without them.
Call me selfish, but the possibility of their disappearance is not acceptable. I intend to smile over their big ears and bouncing, improbable gait for however many years that I have left, and I hope that you can too. To watch them brings pure and simple joy. To hunt them is an honor and a gift that should never be taken for granted.
I hope that the current trend of decline can be permanently reversed, for their sake and for our’s. I wish that there will always be Mule Deer to hunt, along with a place to hunt them that remains wild and free. Most of all I would like to shake the sinking feeling that I am hunting one of the last female’s of her glorious and irreplaceable kind.
Thankfully, that is still quite far from the truth, at least for now. It is not too late to help ensure that such an unthinkable day never comes.
In the meantime, I will do my best to use all parts of my animal as gratefully as possible. I look forward to many fine meals ahead, provided by an animal I both respect and cherish. It makes each small bite a most precious encounter.
Coyote Predation is without doubt a significant factor in the overall health of mule deer populations. Common sense would lead one to believe that they must certainly be extremely effective at locating newborn and younger fawns. The literature is also replete with the idea that they are quick to make a meal out of the weak and the sick in any group. But are they capable, or willing, to go against a full-grown adult?
That question was answered, to my satisfaction anyway, one spring morning a couple of years later while turkey hunting in a remote mountain meadow of northwestern Colorado.
A friend and I had been hen calling for several minutes, when two coyotes suddenly appeared on a ridge above about a half mile away. It was obvious that they were highly interested, and no doubt, the thought of a turkey dinner was forefront in their mind.
We continued calling as they cautiously made their way down a steep hill, calculating their approach with each silent step. I remember thinking that things were about to get interesting, and that we had somehow purchased some front row seats to a classic showing of predators at work.
All at once three doe and two yearling mule deer slunk out of the Aspens below, and began to cross in front of us about 80 yards away. No doubt they had caught the faint scent of human on a swirling breeze, and thought it best to be somewhere else.
The deer had no idea that the two coyotes were directly above them, a fact not lost on the hungry pair. It was immediately apparent that they had forgotten all about drumsticks and dark meat, for they immediately went into deer stalking mode.
I watched, fascinated, as the canines dropped low to the ground, and I swear I could their wild eyes meet as they turned their heads to look at each other. It was obvious that some form of communication passed between them; a message as old, as time.
As quick as could be, one coyote began to circle down and to the right and behind the unsuspecting deer, while the other belly crawled to the left in an effort to position himself above and ahead of the lead doe.
It was also obvious that these two had done this before, probably more times than they could ever remember. The scene unfolded like a slow motion movie, and I remember thinking that this was really going to happen.
Suddenly, the coyote on the left made a full speed dash towards the small herd of deer, trying to overcome one of the smaller ones before they had realized what had happened.
He almost succeeded too, as he furiously tried to sink a tooth in hide or muscle so close at hand. I could actually see his mouth open and close as he snapped them shut, just inches from blood.
But no matter, for he knew what was waiting just ahead, as that was the plan all along.
The waiting coyote adjusted his position as the herd bounced blindly on, still crouched close to the earth. The first deer was upon him, suddenly changing direction as she picked up a slight movement in her path.
The coyote leapt upwards on legs of spring steel, and from my angle it looked like he was on a perfect trajectory. His teeth flashed past the deer’s neck so closely I thought I could see her fur ripple in response, as his momentum carried him harmlessly by.
The deer seemed to hit another gear as they became fully aware of their peril, as the coyotes continued in high pursuit for a hundred yards or more. Even then, I thought that they just might catch them, though my guess is that the coyotes knew that their chance for a venison supper had already passed.
The deer had escaped, this time.
Such are the ways of the coyote, and the mule deer, and who knows just how many times it goes the other way, when we are no longer there to watch.
So, in the end, is it coyotes, or some other form of predation that is the true cause of our Mule Deer decline?
I truly don’t know. But I can only hope that this marvelous, western icon survives the encounter, more often than not…
You Can Find Out More About Coyote Hunting In Colorado Here
“It is likely, and appropriate, that a coyote will use the bones of the last man as a scent post. Beyond that, its just as likely that the bones of the last coyote will be picked clean by a Crow…And at the end, when Crow follows the long procession of species out of a world grown cold under it’s dying sun, he’ll exit laughing.” – John Madson
Interested in Coyote Hunting? We can highly recommend:
A complete guide to hunting coyotes, foxes, cougars, and other predators, with proven tactics and strategies.
Drawing on his years of experience, well-known hunter, writer, and television personality Ron Spomer provides valuable information on how to call a variety of predators into range; how to choose rifles, scopes, bullets, shotguns, and shells; how to use decoys and predator calls effectively; how to set up in the field; how to use weather to your advantage; and much more. 12 color photographs; 100 black & white photographs
“Above came a swift whisper of wings, and as the loons saw us they called wildly in alarm, and took their laughing with them into the gathering dusk. Then came the answers we had been waiting for, and the shores echoed and re-echoed until they seemed to throb with the music. This was the symbol of the lake country, the sound that more than any other typifies the rocks and waters and forests of the wilderness.” – Sigurd Olson, Listening Point, 1958
There is a place in the world that calls my name, with a voice as strong and true as could ever be. It thrums in my head, somewhere deep behind the bustle and noise of everyday living. Searching, beckoning – for me, since the first time I learned of it through my readings long ago. It became some vague and unfilled need, an itch I could not scratch, leaving me in want of something I could not capture. I did not know if I could ever get there.
It is a land of windswept waters and shimmering weed beds, dark timbered islands with ledges of stone, and jagged, multi-dimensional rocks that wrap the untamed shoreline as far as the eye can see.
There are loons here, lonely gulls and bright headed eagles, moose and bear, and the occasional otter slipping gracefully through the waves. There are fish here too, toothy critters, and some as long as your leg. It’s about hovering clouds of blood sipping mosquitos, and impossible days of light that do not end, but only change in tone and hue. It’s all about boats and motors and good friends laughing, eager to see what lies around the next bend.
41 1/2″ of Fun and Fury
They call the place Manitoba, and she is a crown jewel of boundless and spellbinding beauty. To my everlasting satisfaction I finally made it, having returned from her just now. With focus and joy I hold the spirit of it all close to my breast, lest she slip away quietly like a dark shadow in the night. I miss her already, with a depth and breadth of longing indescribable by mere mortals.
To say that Manitoba is all about game fish would be a vast understatement. There are Northern Pike and Walleye in numbers and size that would give any hard-core angler a tingle. Both species have legions of diehard fans, of one or the other, or both. They do seem to go together as naturally as warm sourdough bread and butter, and that’s just fine with me.
It’s easy to become obsessed with this kind of fishing, and it doesn’t take long to discover why. You simply have not lived an outdoor life in full until you’ve seen a green backed missile smash a brightly colored floating Rapala dropped perfectly at the water line, streaking through the sun dappled waters like a bear on fire as you remove the slack and make that first electrifying twitch. It is what piscatorial dreams are made of.
A pike is a ferocious customer. He is mean and crude and bursting with bad intent. There is never any doubt about what lies upon his mind, that being to destroy and consume any fish or small creature that will satisfy however briefly his incessant appetite and fulfill his instinctual need to perpetuate the species.
When hooked he is a stout rod full of trouble, and you can feel his mood through the line and see it in his eyes when he knows that he has been fooled. You have diverted him from his one unabiding mission, and he will not forgive you for it.
It makes one very glad to be something other than a baitfish. I, on the other hand, forgive him completely. He is only doing what a northern pike is designed to do, and he cannot change his ways no more than a wolf could cease to dog a wounded moose. I feel for him too, because without a doubt life is tough if you’re a pike. Just imagine the millions upon millions of his kind that never made it to breeding size.
The Walleye, on the other hand, seems a most different kind of gentleman. His real name is Wall-Eyed Pike, or Pike Perch. He is really not a Pike at all, but is in fact the largest member of the Perch family.
A tackle thrasher he is not, and I think it fair to say that although they are great fun to catch that is not why we seek them out. Walleye are challenging too, but perhaps that’s not it either. Dare we say that it’s all about the shore lunch fillet, done up right with a side of deep-fried potatoes?
I am squarely in that camp, and he may well be the pre-eminent panfish of North America. I simply cannot look at a walleye without salivating, while instantly picturing that glorious white, boneless slab sizzling in a dark black cast iron frying pan. If that’s a bad thing I stand guilty as charged, but blissfully unapologetic, just the same.
Still, walleye possess their own kind of seriousness. They are a more finicky eater than the pike, and seem more dignified and refined. They may prefer to gorge themselves upon mayflies or minnows depending on the day, or….perhaps not. Fisherman seem to talk of them in hushed and respectful tones, so as not to offend them and put them off of their feed. They remain a most mysterious fish, at least to me, and I plan to spend many more hours trying to figure out what makes them tick.
Of course northern Manitoba is the perfect place to do just that. We four booked our trip with Sam Fett at Silsby Lake Lodge, and they offer some of the finest trophy pike and walleye fishing in North America. Sam and his family have been in the outfitting business for decades, and it’s quite obvious that they know how to turn out some mighty happy sportsmen.
Their literature and impressive brochures speak of fish long and broad enough to test the skills of even the most seasoned outdoorsman, and they are not exaggerating. Boy do they have the fish!
Silsby Lake Lodge offers commercial flights from Winnipeg direct to an airstrip just one quick boat skip from their lodge, and it does not take long to get a line in the water. They offer full service guided lodge packages, or outpost camps with cabins or tents if you prefer to guide yourself and do some of the work on your own, as we did.
We fished from the High Hill Outpost camp for our first three days, and it was everything I had imagined a classic pike fishing camp to be. The scene and scenery is so picturesque that one could spend quite a bit of time relaxing at camp – that is if the fishing wasn’t so good. According to Sam, High Hill Lake and other adjoining or nearby waters may hold one of the largest concentrations of trophy pike found anywhere in the Province.
Home, Sweet Home
They have practiced strict conservation and catch and release policies for years, and it shows. Anglers may keep a few smaller fish each week for lunch or dinner, and great care is taken to fully revive the bigger fish.
A combination of perfect habitat, large baitfish populations, and exclusive access leads to a rare opportunity for mature fish – and lots of them. Sam told me that we had an opportunity to catch a northern of over 50″ in a weight range up to 45 pounds, and I believe him. That kind of possibility adds a very special spin to every cast!
Our small group did not catch the “fatties” as they call them on our brief stay at High Hill but we did catch all of the smaller pike that we could have wanted and two fish that we estimated to be in the 17 to 22 pound class. It was the first big pike that I had ever brought to the boat, and it is a thrill that I will not soon forget.
Our next destination was Pritchard Lake Outpost, which involved a short boat ride on High Hill Lake, a spectacular jaunt across Silsby Lake, an all terrain vehicle trip of a few miles to Cuddle Lake, and then another spectacular cruise to our new camp at Pritchard Lake. Suffice it to say that this was a big day of boating for a dweller of high mountain valleys and other high grounds, and I thoroughly enjoyed every rollicking wave of it. And the day was still young!
We filled out our booking with two days of fishing at Pritchard Lake, and it was everything that we had thought it might be. There was a surreal quality to this place, which no doubt had something to do with the fact that we were 90 miles from the nearest road on a body of water that in the past had maybe only ever been fished by a brave float pilot or two. The nearest other fishermen to us were probably 12-15 miles away, and true as it was, I nearly had to pinch my arm to remind myself that this was not some far-fetched dream.
We caught thick walleyes and small pike in a small outlet within ear shot of the tent, which tickled us to no end. Fishing on the main lake was slow, no doubt due to the record heat and high temperatures we were experiencing. Not the sort that give up easily, we fished hard and finally started to pick up some chunky pike in the 6 and 7 pound class, which was more than enough to make me grin.
We found the big boys, finally, on the last late afternoon of our trip. They were hanging in a weed bed in the middle of the lake, and the next two hours went by in a slow motion heartbeat. My boat partner and I caught three large pike in that 15 pound plus range again, and we had several others on that were probably bigger but spit the single barbless hook we were using. Later, our other friends fished that same weed bed and boated a 39 1/2″ fish, which surprised us since we had thrashed the area pretty good. Apparently our efforts had just warmed him up for another tussle.
We returned to camp completely exhausted, knowing that we had left behind all that we had to give, and receive, somewhere out there on those lakes. The only thing left to do was to raise a glass to the northern lights and bow before the utter majesty of this small nick of time. Some places are even harder to leave than they are to get to – and Pritchard Lake was certainly one of those.
I had a lot to think about on the boat ride back to the ATV, and it was all good. At first we picked our way through the shallow bars and watched for logs or other obstructions before opening that engine throttle. It reminds you of what it took you five days to figure out; that this is a world to slow down to and that there is no need to hurry like we all do in our lives back home.
It also warns you that there is danger here too, easily found. Like much of the north country, Manitoba can be a gentle sister or one mean mama, and things can change rather quickly. The character of a trip can be redefined in the blink of an eye, and sometimes not in a good way.
You can sense it in her moods, in the air and upon the changing weather. She can be a woman of tough love that suffers few fools, and rarely more than once. As with all wild things in wild places, there is a thin red line between the living and the not. Fail to respect her, and it’s “Gone beaver”, as the Mountain Men used to say.
If you doubt this then you are simply not paying attention. There are rocks here aplenty, anchored just under the surface, waiting for the unwary sport. Hit one just right and it can punch a hole in your boat faster than the stab of an eagle’s beak, or bash your engine prop off in an even bigger hurry. Do so and you may spend a cold wet night on the beach; that is, if you are very, very lucky.
But in all things worth attempting there is no reward without risk, as well it should be. A little danger can be an exhilarating thing, and it does one good to get that much too civilized blood pumping in the veins. Meanwhile, she dares us on into the waves and spray.
“Take me if you can”, she says…Are you ready?
I could go on and on about our Manitoba experience, but perhaps I shall save some more of it for another time. It’s always good to keep a few good things in reserve to savor and contemplate, at least for a while. One last point though.
Take my advice and don’t ever let anybody tell you that a Northern is not fit for eating. All of my life I have heard pike described as inferior fare – too many bones they said. Well, I am hear to tell you not to believe them.
Another Day At The Office
I asked our Cree Indian guide Lenard about the matter before I got to try one, and being a man of few words it was an easy decision for him. He told us that he liked walleye and pike about the same, and that he liked his fish baked or fried, but not boiled. “They don’t taste too good boiled”, he said. So there you have it.
We found the taste of pike delightful and not too far removed from that of walleye, and the bones not so bad if you filleted them well and were on the lookout. They are fabulous cooked simply on the grill, and my friend who knows a lot about these sort of things thought the feel and texture reminiscent of a nice hunk of halibut. Poor man’s lobster he called it, and it simply screamed to be dredged in butter and garlic. It was one of the greatest surprises in a most surprising trip.
A Little Friendly Competition
Home now in the brisk night air of the Colorado Rockies, I am left with only memories and whimsical deliberations.
How many modern-day human beings, for example, have been blessed to be able to say that they have pitched a plug to game fish that have never seen a lure; in a lake that most certainly has never been plumbed with any kind of thoroughness?
How many of us have become part of a place where a loon can be born to paddle and dive and court; to lay its head back and cry to the heavens for the sheer pleasure of its echo without ever being heard by a human ear?
And by the way, does any bird or animal possess such a plaintive and soul-searching call as the loon? I don’t imagine I could stand it if there was.
How many of our kind have marveled after bears who have never seen such strange two-legged creatures and do not act like the bears of the settled country, or at gulls that are not at all like their more urban cousins and would never think of looking for a handout, but are only disturbed and offended by our presence?
It is all business as usual in Manitoba, and I am a most fortunate son and a far richer man for the transaction.
Many ordinary souls may look at her as a lonesome place, but not I. There is grace here, and the elegance of intelligent design. This world does not suffer for need or lack of anything, including people. It remains an enchanting realm of elementary nature and high adventure, and one cannot feel lonely when most solidly at home.
I know now that a small part of her essence will always be with me, and I can not wish for more. Yet the best part of Manitoba is the way that you feel when you get there, and in the hope that she gives to you to know that she is there, waiting, when you are not. I will return to see her again, should the spirits and the fishgods smile.
Perhaps she waits for you.
*Izaak Walton, one of history’s most famous fisherman, offered a recipe for roast pike in “The Compleat Angler”, and he had a thing or two to say about cooking pike for the dinner table.
He wrote: “This dish of meat is too good for any but anglers, or very honest men; and I trust you will prove both, and therefore I have trusted you with the secret.”
Gee Izaak – tell us what you really think!
Stay tuned for the recipe – while I hunt for my misplaced copy of this most famous angling book!
In Runes of the North Sigurd Olson explores his feelings about the haunting appeal of the wilderness. He recounts how the legends of the northern vastness of Canada and Alaska have influenced him.
In the introduction, Olson writes, “My runes have come from the wilderness, for in its solitude, silence, and freedom …. I know there are moments of insight when ancient truths do stand out more vividly, and one senses anew his relationship to the earth and to all life”.
Runes of the North explores these values, insights, and truths. Olson weaves the tales and myths with his own stories and experiences as an explorer, writer, grandfather, and biologist. “This inner world has to do with the wilderness from which we came”, he writes, “timelessness, cosmic rhythms, and the deep feelings men have for an unchanged environment”.
Olson tells of Native American legends and traditions, like dream catchers and wild rice harvests, as well as the pure pleasure of the Finnish sauna. Each story portrays the special magic one finds in the wilderness and is filled with moments, that Olson writes, “are worth waiting for, and when they come in some unheralded instant of knowing, they are of the purest gold”.
$15.95 USD In Stock
A Journal of Wild Game, Fighting Fish, and Grand Pursuit