Hardly Any Musky

“You working or fishing?” asked Peter at the check-in on Thursday night. It’s an increasingly blurry line, but a reasonable question because the last time I came to McMinnville, Tennessee, I was covering the 2015 Hardly, Strictly Musky tournament for Fly Rod & Reel magazine. Working, I guess. But not this time.

I’d even left my camera at the cabin. Surprising how doing so moderates the buzz of anxiety I usually carry to social events like this. Also shocking that a talented pro like Peter considers my photo- and note-taking “work.” It’s a feeling, sort of a jolt of panic, that I’m getting a lot during these early days of career-transition, when other folks take me more seriously than I take myself. Have to work on that.

“Fishing,” I answered.

“Good man,” Peter said with a grin, and headed off to the Foglight Foodhouse’s open bar.

Then I bumped into Mike. We exchanged “nice to finally meet you”s and talked about muskies for a while. We’d long been internet acquaintances. So goes the angling world these days.

The major benefit of the angling blogosphere is that writer/photog/anglers with similar outlooks and temperaments tend to find each other organically, so there’s little risk of winding up in a boat for three days with a dude you can’t get along with. Or likewise in a truck for ten hours of dodging semis between Indiana and Tennessee.

“He’s a heck of a fisherman,” Dave had said on that drive about Mike, the third angler on our team. “He’s also the kind of guy who’s infectiously happy just being in the boat, casting.”

“Sounds like a good guy to have in a musky boat,” I said, and Dave nodded.

“Exactly,” he said.

For Dave and I have done this together before. We know that a musky tournament angler must not only be indefatigable in the face of near-certain failure but also a little bit apathetic. A guy who wants to catch a musky too much is no fun to be around.

Dave and I know this. We’ve both been that guy.

But Mike? I doubt he’s ever been that guy.

Even after a big fish ate his fly in heavy current on day one, stayed stuck long enough for me to get the net unfolded, and then spit the fly back out. The rod unbowed and swear words crackled. Even after this, and a short meditation on the uncertainty and unfairness of life, Mike was again fishing with a smile.

Like I said: it’s organic. When friends are good enough there’s no worry about how friends-of-friends will fit in. It doesn’t take much math to calculate that so goes the entire tournament of 100 anglers. In compliance with the official tournament rules, there was not an asshole to be seen. Especially during the flotilla that developed on the upper Caney Fork, mid-day on a high-sun Saturday. It was a special group: a few of those faces have been seen in person by hundreds of muskies. Our boat excluded, probably the most concentrated river-acre of musky mojo ever in history. Luckily, muskies don’t use hand grenades, because we gave them a heck of a target for about a half hour. 

The only moment of concern all weekend came when when a couple of friendly tourney anglers in a canoe told us that a “grey tin boat with two dudes from Texas had an accident upriver.” That was a little worrisome since our cabinmates, Andrew and Winston, were in from Texas driving just such a boat, and had promised us BBQ chicken wings for a post-dinner snack. But when we learned that they’d turned down offers of aid, brushed off the treebark, and headed on upstream, we stopped worrying. 

It wasn’t until the drive back north, rolling in and out of early-morning mountainshade in rural Kentucky, that Dave and I realized that after a half-dozen musky trips together, this one had been the most on-paper successful: we saw six muskies, and even briefly had hooks in one. 

One of these days we’ll get one in the boat. Maybe.

The new hashtag that’s developed around this tournament seems to fit: #hardlyanymusky. It’s not a condemnation of the tournament. It’s just a damn fact of life. 

Many thanks to Dave, Mike, Andrew, and Winston for being good boat and cabin crew.

Also serious thanks to:

Hardly, Strictly Musky: The Southern Classic

Towee Boats

YETI

Patagonia

and the other fine other sponsors

 

The Right Tool

The tool need not be new, or heirloom, or trendy. It need only be right for the job.

And the job must be a real one. Not an excuse to use the tool. In this case, the tool is snowshoes, and the job is hunting supper.

Legs burning, steam pumping, heart working at a healthy-feeling pace beneath the layers of synthetics and wool that I constantly revise to avoid sweat and retain warmth. Ash and babiche snowshoes bound to my boots with cotton lampwick, finally adjusted just right. Old .22 balancing in my right hand with the familiarity of years. The familiarity of its sights and trigger have been tuned up with a week of daily practice.  

For once the snow matches the shoes perfectly: a thick, soft crust above a foot of sugar-snow that would have us postholing two of every three steps, except for these modified bear paws. Or a pair of magnesium USGI surplus. Or a set of Iverson Michigans. With these we are taking swift country-devouring steps, over deadfalls and brush tangles, and in fact traveling easier than if we were wearing upland boots and there were no snow at all.

We find this walking to be an unexpected but welcome pleasure, just like the flush in our cheeks in the ten-degree air. Pleasure in needing a tool for its purpose and having it. We are not snowshoeing just to snowshoe, shooting just to shoot, exercising just to exercise, recreating just to recreate. We are hunting varying hares along the brushy spruce-swamp edges in eighteen inches of crusty snow, with .22s and snowshoes, and on this day, it could not be done any other way.

We walk five abreast, looking hard for black eyes and black ear-tips or for the motion of a darting kicked-up rabbit, and though we cut a hundred sets of tracks in the inch of last night’s powder, we only find three hares. We have them in four shots. They otherwise hold tight in the hard-crusted snow caves beneath deadfalls and brushpiles. They, too, have snowshoes, and the right tools. 

As it turns out, three is plenty.

A sublime supper then, seasoned by exertion and no small amount of triumph. Legs and backstraps and hearts, cooked stovetop with onions and garlic–and some potatoes to avoid starvation. Just right. Afterward we file outside to escape the heat of the kitchen and stand amid a cold falling snow and listen to a barred owl calling from the same spruce swamp edge and we wish her success. After all, her job is the same, her tools right, if more refined than ours.

Author’s note: This work (aside from the cooking) was done on Federal public land within the Superior National Forest. No fees, no gates, no permission slip, no State Park sticker, no crowds.

Sounds Like Snow

The first blizzard of the year. If the forecast holds, sounds like that’s what’s coming. A no-travel-advised, buy-extra-groceries-and-an-extra bottle-of-whiskey two-day blow. And just in time. It’s been another too-warm deer season. We’ve been wearing flannel instead of wool and hearing loons on the lake instead of ice-making rumbles, and if there’s deer around they’re staying nocturnal. A sharp turn in the weather is just the thing to shake things up and at the very least some snow will make the woods more interesting. Hunting without snow is like fishing a muddy, blown-out river. No visibility and low confidence. Tonight, finally, the snow is coming.

The first raindrops hit the windshield about the time I hit Cloquet. By Duluth it’s sleet and twenty miles further north it’s sticking to the road. CB and Bear are at the shack already when I four-wheel into the yard and their tracks are already obscured by snow. The kitchen gas lights cast a warm glow out the window and illuminate galaxies of big, round snowflakes.

Next morning is not an early one into the woods. Instead: an extra cup of coffee, feed the woodstove, read a book at the kitchen table, watch the snow falling out the window. A foot or so of fell overnight and it’s blowing into drifts now. The cabin’s 110-year-old tamarack logs creak a bit with the heavy gusts.

But the kitchen is warm. Once more cup of coffee, weak stuff boiled too long, but seasoned just right by the smell of the birch smoke from the stove and the total absence of any kind of wireless signal. I step onto the porch and toss the dregs into the snow. Deep breath. 

That wind is really picking up. Probably should have got out earlier. I step back inside and stomp the snow from my slippers and head to the back bedroom where my gear is. I dress in light layers, planning to walk, and slide the rifle with iron sights out of its sleeve. A scope in this weather is no good. Irons you can just brush the snow out of. And this rifle’s seen some snow. It’s Swedish, a Mauser ‘96, made in 1911 and lent to the Finns in 1939 when the Russians invaded. The cartridges pop into the magazine with a musical clink, a pleasing aesthetic one doesn’t get with a more modern rifle made with stamped steel and polymers. 

First part of the trail cuts through a popple stand maybe thirty years old. The snow is blowing sideways and the treetops rattle skeletal. There is something about still-hunting in the snow and wind. You can’t hear anything but neither can the deer. Nor smell. In the swaying trees their motion-based eyesight is dazzled. My human predator’s eyes with their depth perception and color resolution give me a rare sensory advantage. I work through the aspens, step, step, pause, wait, look hard, step. I feel sinister. Lethal.

This trail dead-ends at a stand in an ancient black spruce that overlooks the edge of the cedar swamp. I climb up to sit for a few minutes but the swaying of the old tree in the gale is unsettling and the snow is falling quicker now. It’s about 3 but it’s already getting dark.

Halfway back some character of the wind shifts and trees begin cracking. Loudly. I’ve already been thinking about the warm cabin and supper. Now I’m thinking about widowmakers. I imagine that the odds of a tree actually falling on me are pretty small. Then again every tree eventually falls, and every square inch of forest eventually has a tree fall on it.

I hunt a little faster. When I see the deer standing off to the right of the trail I feel that familiar jolt of adrenaline and the odd dissonance between shock that deer do actually exist and the ordinary image–a deer in the woods–that’s presented.

She’s not far away, maybe thirty yards, but the alders and popples are thick here and I can’t make out more than the color and general shape of a medium-sized doe. I can see the line of her back, a frosting of snow collected there, insulated by her thick winter coat, that hollow hair that spins and flares so perfectly for streamer heads and bass bugs. She’s eating the buds off the alder branches. I have no shot. Need to get closer.

I step into the woods, off the trail, moving when her head is down and when the wind is gusting. Time is short so I am taking chances, pushing it, but the wind hides me.  My heart races and my senses sharpen. This is hunting. One more step and a small hole opens in the branches. I raise the rifle and lean my left wrist against a popple trunk for a rest. But the deer has turned and she is facing away from me, head down. Sights steady but no real target. Wait. Light is fading.

And then from the hilltop behind me a thunderous crrrrack-whumph and I jump, focus jarred, turning to look automatically. A big popple must have come down.

I turn back and there’s another deer. Closer. Standing up from her bed. Snow slips from her back where it had piled as she slept. She looks right at me. I only have to shift the rifle a few inches for a clean shot. The sights have gathered some snow as I stand here but they’re clear enough and I focus on the front sight blade.

A wave of reluctance washes over me. Always does at this moment. Cold predatory instinct falters. My mind flashes excuses to not shoot. It’s almost dark. What if you have to track her in the snow? Do you really want to spend the next hour gutting and dragging? What if I miss? Will CB and Bear hear the shot and come to help drag? Is she big enough? Shouldn’t you save your tag just in case?

But I am expecting this onslaught–it has cost me in the past–and I have steeled myself against it with the thought of venison in the freezer, the memory of none last year and of buying beef and all the baggage it entails. And the obvious this is why I’m here. I catch my breath and squeeze.

The sound of the shot is swallowed by the woods and the wind and the snow. My ears do not ring.

recipe: venison heart

or, “the reason to take a neck shot.”

  • Chill heart in the snow. Rinse well and butterfly, trimming all fat and vessels. Anything white.
  • Slice into 3/4″ thick strips and season with cracked sea salt and pepper.
  • Rest for 20-30 minutes outside or in the fridge, but don’t allow to freeze.
  • Heat 1/16” of olive oil to spitting-hot in your 12″ cast iron.
  • Fry meat in two batches, turning frequently. Cook time for each batch 2-3 minutes. Do not overcook.
  • Add a bit of butter (and garlic if desired) to pan in the last 30 seconds of each batch and swirl the pan to baste the meat.
  • Rest meat for 5 minutes before serving.

at home: serve with Minnesota wild rice and roasted carrots or rutabaga. Pair with a Bent Paddle black ale or a modest European red wine. 

at camp: eat from a paper plate with your fingers while still too hot and wash down with whatever domestic light beer CB brought up.