Even though tourism marketers insist their demographics and surveys reveal outdoor sports like golf and tennis are equal, or even surpass, fishing and hunting in popularity today, my heart says it isn’t so. True, golf and tennis are admirable sports, games at which I embarrass myself at occasionally. But when ever has a tee shot onto the green or acing an opponent on the serve really made one’s heart race or cause hardened global entrepreneurs to turn giddy? It happens all the time when hunting and fishing!
My friend Jim is such an example. He is a self-made millionaire from out east who earned his fortune with an unrelenting work ethic, nerves of steel, and veins with ice coursing through them. He appears to fear no one, and has enjoyed wild success in all he’s set out to do. Yet a simple walleye unnerved him.
Jim visited the Brainerd area awhile back to speak at a convention of utility professionals. Once he was through he had one request: to go walleye fishing. He had done many things like mountain biking across France and claimed victory at prestigious sailing regattas, but he wanted to catch a walleye.
To better assure success, we lined up guide Rob Rasinski who had fished Gull Lake all his life. He had been guiding his clients to limits of walleyes for a few days, so we left the dock with expectations on high. The day was one of those rare Indian Summer days. The leaves were in full autumn glory, the sky was brilliant blue, and the unseasonable temperatures had the thermometer up over seventy degrees. We agreed that no matter the outcome, just being out on the lake that day had already made it a wild success. Still, we both wanted walleyes.
The recommended bait offering was typical fall fashion – a red tailed chub hooked on a slip sinker rig and fished on the bottom. The first spot held fish, but none that cared for red tailed chubs. Same with the second, third, and fourth spot. I listened to Jim’s stories of high stakes business launches and hard-nosed negotiations. Rob got more serious. Like any proud fishing guide, he said the empty live well wasn’t looking too good.
On our fifth spot, we finally hit active fish. Rob caught a keeper walleye and showed Jim what they looked like. Witnessing a little success got us going. Jim started telling the fish they had better bite. I told him it wasn’t the same as cutting a deal with humans. Then he got a solid walleye bite. He tried to feed it line, fumbled with the reel bail, and tried to keep the tangle out of his line - all at the same time. High buck investments and Wall Street deals couldn’t rattle him, but a scaly, small-brained fish had him talking to himself.
Jim was quick though and rebounded well. He gathered the line and set the hook. The look on his face was priceless. Nervousness, excitement and joy all at once. Rob netted the walleye and brought it in. Jim was as giddy as a kid at Christmas. Here was a man who had all financial and professional success a person could want, and catching a walleye was at the moment the greatest thing that had ever happened to him.
The fascination of all things wild can indeed make grown men and women act like youngsters. And youngsters, well, they are the best to watch as they experience hunting for the first time. Trevor, who is the last of my boys, turned nine earlier this year. He was old enough to come along and watch on the opening day of duck season. Like us older folks, he found joy in all aspects of the hunt. Packing a lunch with favored goodies, loading up the gear, and driving the ATV far into the woods were all just little slices of the day to be savored.
There were wet places to cross and woods to travel through before we arrived at the beaver dam that we expected to hold wood ducks, mallards, and teal. Trevor carried our lunch and some gear in a small scout back pack that I had gotten when I was about his age. There’s something very satisfying in seeing kids today leave the video games and cable television behind and strike off on an adventure with Dad.
We stopped at a traditional spot in the woods for lunch with family and cousins. Season was still two hours off, so some of the younger hunters, and Trevor, sneaked down to the water’s edge to see if there were ducks or not. Trevor’s eyes were fired with excitement when he came back to say there were lots of ducks in the water. I, too, hummed with excitement as we hunkered down to wait for noon to come.
I told Trevor that his job was to keep our retriever Bandit on the leash until we wanted him to go out and fetch ducks we, hopefully, were going to bag. I told him the dog would be very excited because this was his first hunt of the year, and when he heard shots, he would want to run out right away. Trevor assured me he would keep him under control.
At five minutes after noon, a small flock of mallards left the pond and winged their way over us. I rose up and missed with my first shot, but not my second. A drake greenhead in budding plumage splashed in the water in front of us. Behind me I heard a crash in the brush and turned to look as Bandit went tearing out into the water with his leash trailing behind. Trevor was picking himself up and sheepishly told me he didn’t know the dog could pull that hard. He was relieved when I laughed and said we would make the dog behave himself when he got back with the duck.
For the next several minutes, sporadic flocks of mallards left the beaver pond and flew over us well within shotgun range. I showed Trevor how to keep his head down until we were ready to shoot. When we were successful, he would send Bandit out for the bird and take it from him when he returned. He agreed that sending the dog to retrieve ducks was more fun than throwing a stick or ball for him to bring back. Trevor laid the ducks out in a neat row and kept careful count so we wouldn’t go over the limit. When I bagged a green winged teal I showed him how small one duck can be compared to others.
Soon we had our limit and prepared to leave. My cousin, who was our host, asked Trevor what he thought about duck hunting. It was not so much what he said, but how he said it, that made me believe he felt the same excitement that I and all our fathers before had felt when first hearing the whistling wings of mallards coming in from the sky.
Do not ask me to define the reason behind the passion, the excitement that draws us to hunt game and catch fish. All I know is that it is there and it is powerful enough to make accomplished men laugh with delight. It is the same thing that makes boys’ hearts race when a flock of ducks turn their way. Golf doesn’t do it, tennis either. In fact, nothing seems to move the soul like pursuing the wild things of this earth!