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Best & Worst Days
March 5, 2010
It's hard to choose what might be might my best day afield because I can hardly think of a day when I've been hunting or fishing that wasn't great. So many days stand out: the crisp fall day when I shot my first Eastern grouse with then OL fishing editor, Jerry Gibbs. The woods in Vermont's Northern Kingdom were a blaze of color, the sky was the color of a robin's egg and there was a hint of wood smoke on the breeze. Jerry's springer, Spirit, made a perfect point. I walked in and flushed two grouse that flew from the edge of the woods toward an old, abandoned apple orchard. The birds came up so fast that I didn't have time to think. The little Red Label 20-gauge Jerry had loaned me jumped to my shoulder and I fired, folding the first bird neatly. I started "thinking" about the second bird and, naturally, missed him by a mile. Afterward we sat on a log and ate slices of apples we'd picked from the trees as we admired the gorgeous fan of my first real grouse. The day I took my Dall sheep certainly stands out. It was around day 14 of what had been scheduled to be a 10-day hunt, but almost constant snowfall had made the hunting very difficult. I was totally worn out (as was my guide) after nearly two weeks of climbing up and down treacherous rock faces of crumbling stone in the Alaska Range. My sheep fell nearly a thousand feet after it was shot, and I was afraid of what I might find when we finally climbed down to him. But when I wrapped my hands around those beautiful horns, I felt on top of the world. He may not have been the biggest sheep in Alaska, but he was mine. And the tenderloins we cooked for dinner that night (washed down with a bottle of Chateau Lafite a friend had left us at our base camp) was among the best meat I've ever tasted. But if I had to pick one day, or perhaps one moment, as my all-time best in hunting, it has to be the morning I took my best whitetail ever. I was hunting with Mark Drury on a lovely farm he had lovingly managed in Iowa. Mark had told me the place had some big deer on it, but after so many years of hunting whitetails (28 days in Alberta alone) without even seeing a good buck, I found it hard to believe. Our first night on stand, the biggest buck I've ever laid eyes on came strolling down a fence line as if he owned the place. He was huge, with a belly as big as a boiler and heavy antlers that wrapped around his head in long beams well outside his ears. He was a perfect 10-point and he was headed right toward our tree stand. All I had to do was let him walk right down the muzzle of the gun. I had him in the crosshairs the entire way. My finger was on the trigger. At 50 yards, I eased the safety off. It would be a chip shot. My dream of taking a monster whitetail was about to come true. "Don't shoot," Mark whispered from somewhere behind me. "Not enough light." Mark had been videotaping the entire encounter, but the light had faded to the point that the footage would be worthless. The buck was still clear as daylight in the scope, but I eased the safety back on. I took one last look and watched in disbelief as the buck of my dreams walked off. We waited until it was dead dark, then climbed down. The silent walk back to the truck seemed to take forever. Back in the truck, Mark thanked me for not taking the shot. He knew what I'd given up. "Don't worry," he said. "There's bigger bucks than him in these woods." And he was right. The following morning, we had just gotten on stand (my gun wasn't even loaded yet), when another monster buck (virtually a twin of the one I'd had in the crosshairs the night before) came boogying down the fence line in front of us. At 63 yards, Mark grunted to him. He froze, dead broadside on, his eyes riveted on our stand. My slug took him just behind the shoulder. I couldn't believe he didn't drop at the shot, but I knew I'd hit him well. He ran about 50 yards. "He's down," Mark yelled. I could hardly believe it. "How does it feel to take the biggest deer of your life," Mark asked, as the camera whirred. I don't remember what I said because it was all like a dream. And I remember that dream every day that I see him on my wall.
As for bad days, I've had a couple. My worst day was when I watched Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks warden captain Lou Kis get mauled by a grizzly. Kis and a team of biologists had trapped the huge male on Blackfeet Indian Reservation outside of Kalispell, where the bear had been suspected of knocking down cattle. When I saw the bear, he was in a huge culvert trap in the back of a government pickup truck. He had been darted, then measured and examined. I'd been invited to ride along to take photos of the bear as he was being released. I rode with Kis as we tailed the truck carrying the culvert trap toward the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area. Along the way, Kis told me about his life with the Fish & Wildlife Department. He was every bit the classic picture of a game warden--a big, powerful man, with a deep voice and a cowboy's practicality in his speech. He carried a .357 Magnum revolver on his hip and wore a ball cap on his head. He told me he'd be retiring soon. In fact, this would probably be his last trap-and-transfer mission. In those days you could still hunt grizzlies in the Lower 48 on a draw basis. Kis knew this was a beautiful, mature grizzly male, and he truly hoped some lucky hunter might find him the following fall. He also told me that when bears came out of the anesthesia, they could be very ornery. Generally, though, they were merely thirsty and would go straight to water, which is why he always chose a place beside a quiet stream to let the bears lose. We'd been on the road quite a while when the bear came to. As we rounded a bend, I watched as, up ahead, the bear grabbed onto the bars of the culvert trap. His nails, like linoleum knives, wrapped around the bars and rattled the cage. Clearly he was not happy. Kis sensed it, too. "This bear is acting really strange," he said, his words sounding ominous in the relative quiet of the cab. Some time later, we pulled up beside a babbling brook far back along a dirt road. The mid-morning sun was warm on my face as I rolled the window down and readied my camera. Kis was all business now. "I want everyone in their vehicles with the motors running," he commanded as he climbed on top of the culvert trap that filled the bed of the other pickup. The tailgate was down to allow room for the trap to hang out the back. Kis instructed the young man driving the truck to listen for his signal. Once the bear was free of the trap, he was to drive off, giving the bear plenty of room to quietly walk down to the stream and acclimate himself after his dizzying ride up the twisting mountain roads. But it didn't quite work out that way. Kis moved out to the end of the culvert and began to raise the heavy iron-barred gate. As soon as the gate was up a few inches, the bear's snout appeared under the gate, then his entire head. Then, in one powerful move, the bear slammed the gate upward and jumped down from the mouth of the trap. In the next few seconds, several things happened very fast. The bear hit the ground, but instead of walking gently down to the stream, he wheeled instantly, stood on his back feet and reached up to grab Kis, who was perched at the end of the trap with the raised gate still in his hands. Kis yelled for the driver of the truck to pull away, which he did. What none of us realized, however, was that the culvert wasn't strapped down. With the weight of the bear and Kis on the end of the cage, the huge culvert began sliding backward. Then, to our utter horror, the trap upended, tilting down and out of the bed of the pickup like a sinking ship, throwing Kis into the outstretched paws of the angry grizzly. The next moment was simply a blur of bear and man tumbling on the ground. I could hear Kis firing his sidearm. I shouted for the biologist sitting next to me to shoot the bear (he had a pump shotgun filled with buckshot) as I jumped out of the vehicle. I don't know what I was expecting to do with just a camera in my hands, but I couldn't just watch this poor man being killed. But before I could take a step, the bear staggered backward, releasing Kis, who he'd been shaken like a rag doll. The bear stumbled off a few steps as we came running up. Kis's final shot had caught the bear just under his chin and angled up into his brain. "Shoot that son-of-a-bitch," Kis yelled, not wanting to take any chances. The young biologist fired and the bear lay still. I walked up to Kis, who was bleeding from a number of cuts. His leg was bleeding badly, and as I slit his pant leg with my knife, I worried that the bear's teeth might have severed an artery. There was too much blood, so I ran down to the stream to wet my bandanna. Back at Kis's side, I sponged off his wound to reveal several clean holes, right down through his femur and just below his knee. (X-rays would later reveal that his leg was actually broken.) The bleeding, fortunately, looked worse than it was, and after being treating for shock, Kis was sitting up and talking in just a few minutes. "Dang, I hated to shoot that bear," he said quietly, his voice sounding sad and tired now. Somebody called for a Medevac chopper and Kis was soon airlifted out. We loaded the bear into the back of his truck, his giant paws flopping lifeless onto the bed like a dead man, then drove back to town. I never saw Lou Kis again, but I was told that the department presented the bear rug to him as a retirement gift. I hope he's fairing well. To view this gallery go to:
Andrew McKean--Hunting Editor
Last fall's rifle deer season in Missouri. Three months after the death of my father, I took his favorite rifle back to the family farm in northern Missouri with a mix of melancholy and purpose. I intended to hunt my favorite place, with the old 7x57mm Mauser as a sort of stand-in for my departed father. In the soybean field where my Dad always said I'd see a big buck--but never did in all my years of hunting there as a kid--I spotted what looked from 1,000 yards like a big deer. After two hours of wading flooded ditches and belly crawling through standing soybeans, I got close enough to be astonished by the mass and height of the buck, which was very intently bird-dogging a doe. I managed to kill that deer, and as I approached it, laying in the bean field I had plowed and seeded and cultivated for years with my father, I could hear my father's voice, a mix of surprise and dead-level calm: "Well, I'll be damned."
Duck hunting with my buddy Steve Dalbey. Steve had a hot lead on a mallard hole on Montana's Hauser Lake. We launched before dark on a frigid December morning, motored uplake and had a decent shoot. But a cold snap was dropping out of the north, and by afternoon the lake was starting to freeze and locking our decoys into the ice. Steve drove his boat up on the sandy beach were we were set up, and we started to bag up decoys. I turned around to throw a sack of dekes in the boat, only to find it drifting off shore. I yelled at Steve, who looked helplessly at me. In that instant I realized I had to choose between being stranded overnight on a remote reach of frozen beach--with only raw ducks for dinner--or I could jump in the freezing water to retrieve the boat. I jumped, trying to keep the top of my chest waders above water. After three strokes toward the boat ice water flooded my waders, and I knew I had made a mistake. I was about to be pulled under the surface, but I have a mighty kick and reached the boat. The only good thing about the day is that it was so cold my wet gloves froze instantly to the gunwale of the boat, effectively sticking me and keeping my heavy body above the surface. I kicked enough to reach Steve, but I knew I was in trouble. I was shaking uncontrollably from the cold, and we were a half hour boat ride from the pickup. Steve pulled me on the beach, told me to keep the waders on, and fired up the boat. He drove like a maniac to the pickup, but I was shaking too hard to be any help. I've never been so happy to feel heat flood out of an old pickup's vents. I finally got enough warmth in my core to scold Steve about his boat-beaching skills. "Hey," he returned, a relieved smile replacing the tension on his face. "If your dog was any kind of decent retriever, he would have fetched the boat."
Gerry Bethge--Deputy Editor
Best Day (Part 1):
It's pretty tough to motivate a teenager to do much of anything you want them to do, but when New York State instituted its first Youth Hunt for spring gobblers, my then 14-year-old daughter Amy was all in. Weather and a barnstorming jake ruined our first Youth Day hunt, but the second spring turned out much better. We arrived at camp in time to roost some birds and I could hardly believe my eyes when Amy sprung up from bed at 4:30 and was ready to roll by 4:45 (11 a.m. is her typical Saturday wake up). We set up off a field in open woods, and had eight turkeys going once the gobbling started. While the birds enjoyed gobbling at each other, they pretty much blew me off. But a hen didn't, and playing to her, I somehow managed to pull the hens--with longbeards in tow--in our direction. Unfortunately, the group drifted off, but some quick hits on a box call, brought three more gobbling turkeys in our direction. It was a longbeard and two jakes. The mature bird also drifted off, but clucking at the others with a push-pin brought the others in close and Amy, took the jake that was strutting. Thirty yards with a 20-gauge and shooting 3-inch No. 5s. Not too shabby for someone who was petrified she would miss her first bird. I'm not sure who was more thrilled, her or me--actually, I am sure. There could not have been a better Thanksgiving meal.
Gerry Bethge--Deputy Editor
Best Day (Part 2):
I'd taken a couple of fine Kansas whitetails before, but on my last hunt in the Sunflower State I was determined to hold out for something better though it didn't seem as if it would start out that way. Snow is fine, ice is bad especially when you've got to drive three hours in it in order to get to camp. Although the precipitation had slowed down a bit, the first morning on stand was pure misery. I'd never seen ice fog before, but now I was immersed in it. What deer I saw were all dinks and by the end of the first day, my dreams were more about being warm than super whitetails. The front had cleared by the second day replaced by sunshine and temperatures in the teens. Partners Tater Haviland, Brad Rucks and I planned to sit it out until 9 when we'd rendezvous back at the truck to warm up. By the time 8 a.m. arrived, I longed for the heater. At 8:45 I decided to toss pride aside and get down. One last look over my left shoulder and I was out of there. "Shooter!!!!!!" was all I remember thinking. King Kong stood behind me with five does just a long bow shot away--I was using a rifle. However, excitement turned to agony in an instant when I realized that getting my rifle from lap to shoulder with six sets of eyes 35 yards away would be an impossibility. That's when a Christmas miracle came a couple weeks early. A farm truck thundering down the road more than ½-mile away somehow caught all the deers' attention at once. The moment they turned to check the source of the sound, I mounted the rifle and fired. It was the finest snap-shooting feat of my life. The buck kicked his hind legs, topped a barbed wire fence in two bounds and all became still. In the time it took for me to climb to the bottom of the ladder, Haviland and Rucks were already hollering. "Can you say Booner!" Rucks shouted. The blood trail was short and at the end of it lay my best buck ever. When we scored it back at camp, he taped out at 178.
It was Labor Day weekend in northern Minnesota and good friend Richard P. Smith and I were on bears big time. Smith, who had spent a couple of weeks driving back and forth from his home in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to freshen baits, is one of the most knowledgeable bear hunters in the country and was confident about our chances for success. And it didn't take long. Forewarned about not shooting the first bear to the bait (they're usually the smallest), I shot the second and its death bawl told me that it was a good hit. Smith was on the scene a short time later and we made short work of the butchering process. Because our tiny motel-room refrigerator would not hold very much bear--and temps were soaring into the 80s--we went to Plan B. Well, everyone knows that Lake Superior is the coldest of all the Great Lakes so why not pack up the meat, toss it in the cooler and let the icy Superior waves wash up upon the meat boxes to cool it all off? Okay, bad idea. An hour after beaching our coolers, Rich and I strolled down to the beach. The scene was horrific. Both coolers lay on their sides, their Zip-lock bag contents now bobbing in the surf. The scramble was on. Rich arrived on the scene in the blink of an eye with a canoe and two paddles and a fish net. "Let's go get them," he hollered. It was about that time that the thunderstorm began. For the next ½ hour, Smith and I flailed about Lake Superior amid crashing bolts of lightning and deafening thunder attempting to net floating plastic bags of bear meat. We snagged 10 in all before the wind kicked up. The rest likely lie alongside the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.
John Burgman--Assistant Editor
There are very few experiences that compare to your first hunt. The perpetual nerves. The heft of the rifle in your hands. The morning wind dragging through the brush. Each small element is magnified in the moment, and every outdoorsman, everywhere, remembers the excitement and anticipation. I recall the moment before my first hunt as my "best" hunting moment because I was inexperienced in an experienced man's game. I'm not reluctant to admit that I had--and still have, of course--much to learn about tracking animals, about the frustration of patience, about bullet caliber and the unending and fascinating complexities of our sports. But the hunt was the beginning of it all. It was the thrill of knowing that one adventure would lead to countless more, and that I was now officially a part of the greatest tradition.
I feel fortunate to say that, as of now, I can't call up a harrowing hunting or fishing story--or, at least, I can't think of a story that amounts to anything aside from minor weather frustrations, airport delays, or stray lure hooks caught in tender flesh. However, I do recall a camping trip several years ago when a bear ravaged my food pack. I awoke one morning to find food scraps scattered around the campsite, with nothing substantial left except for Ramen noodle spice packs (the noodles, themselves, had been eaten by the bear) and a few rock-hard, dehydrated beans. No kidding--I lived on nothing but those meager rations for the next few days of the trip. No trail mix. No dinner. Just spice packs and crunchy beans. I was hungry and discouraged, but that's all part of the experience. And it makes for a great story.
Best & Worst—Kuhn
Todd Kuhn--Bowhunting Editor
As is typically my luck, I arrived in Iowa smack dab in the middle of one of the warmest Novembers on record. Word on the streets (and in the grocery store where I heard it) was, according to the local "deer dignitaries" ―the rut had been canceled due to heat. After little luck, I began to wonder if "they" were right. Instead of giving up, I decided to change it up and try a mid-day sit (like I read about in Outdoor Life). With my pants rolled-up and house slippers on (my rubber boots were cooking my feet), I climbed into my lock-on. The mercury had hit 83 and salty sweat burned my eyes. Evidently, heat exhaustion was beginning to cloud my normally good judgment. Exactly nine minutes later, house slippers and all―I arrowed my best buck to date. While on my way to the processor, I grinned as I passed the pundits rocking on their porches, sipping cold beverages, no doubt complaining about the heat.
Remember your greatest and most miserable days afield? Our editors sure do!
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