Latest

Marriage.

By Nathan Miller

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

You hear a lot of jokes about marriage right before you take the “Big Plunge” and in the weeks leading up to the big day, the jokes seemed tiring as I had heard nearly them all.  Though, in those same moments, I would get a little more excited with each bad joke.

Not many years ago I was on the rampage of hurling beers down my throat, chasing hens throughout the local bars, and hunting and fishing whenever I pleased with no one to cinch a rope around my neck. Then my first daughter Brooklyn was put into my arms and things suddenly changed in life. You have two choices when you have a child out of wedlock. One, you can turn and run, be a coward and leave your child fatherless. Or two, step up to the plate and take what is your creation, and raise them better than you were raised no matter how good or bad of an upbringing you may have had. But in truth there is only one choice, not two, for the reason that being a daddy is the greatest gift in life a man will ever receive.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Four years after Brooklyn was born I met Sadie, a gypsy soul which whom I cannot even begin to decide where she is from. Born in North Dakota raised there for many years among a mother and a father along four other siblings, they then would packed it into Idaho for a few more years, next into Michigan for a while, and last on her own down to North Carolina for ten years. It was a vacation back to Michigan to visit her mother, friends, and family for a few months when we crossed paths. To make this long story somewhat short she glanced at me and her big blue doe eyes would never let go of mine.

Dating Sadie was special, it was a time in my life that I had missed out on throughout my later crazy years. I have never had so much fun with someone, running around like two lost souls not knowing where to take the next turn. I quickly found myself hopping out of the blind with buddies a little early to get a moment to spend with her. How could I ever drop a bro before a, well, you know…

I realized I loved this woman and at about that moment is when she called to tell me we had a creation brewing in her little coffee pot.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

“You need to get married,” is what I heard coming from family and friends rather quickly when we found out we had conceived a child the night after an Eric Church concert. Marriage was something I never wanted and I certainly wasn’t going to pop the question to a woman because people were telling me too. Lucky for those people it didn’t take me long to figure out what I wanted to do and marriage it is to a woman I have no idea where she is from. Obviously she said yes and we would wait until after our daughter Ella Mae was born to begin the planning.

IMG_2429_edited

Nearly two years after the initial proposal June 28, 2014, I came to do something that I thought was unthinkable not so long ago. I would make sure this wedding had a taste for a flock of honkers or mallards seem very inviting. We went with an outdoor wedding at my Grandfathers home and base it around the country setting. This is who Sadie and I are, two country souls with a handful of decoys. It was ok until I came home to see my GHG Mallards had ribbon wrapped around their necks and I cannot apologize enough to my little soldiers but I fought hard to have them removed to no avail. The duck boat would be the place of interest for the beer enthusiasts and the decoys would line our invented aisle way to lead a bride down to me. There was no “Here Comes the Bride” playing to bring our guests to their feet to welcome her. Today, it was the highball of my mallard duck call to signal this gorgeous hen down to her awaiting drake under that mature maple. A good surprise to the congregation and a few good laughs thrown in made this a unique wedding already. My excitement rose after my air filled the call and here she came stepping down those stairs. Never in my life have I ever seen anything so beautiful.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Let me step back to two weeks before the wedding. I have heard so many couples mention that ridiculous saying of marrying their best friend. Sadie has always told me I was her best friend and she was getting to marry him. Well Greg Jones was my best friend and I told her she could not replace him until two weeks before the wedding as I began to realize she is my best friend (so hard to write that) she listens to me bitch about Greg, Pat, and all my hunting buddies. She is a rock for me to lean on and the voice of reason when the time isn’t right to buy one more call. Well Greg certainly won’t kiss me, and I sure don’t want him to, so what more could a man look for in a best friend.

She is it.

IMG_2836

A wedding ceremony fit for a duck or a goose and having one of my most amazing friends Aaron get ordained to seal this deal. Now the ceremony is over let’s mingle with family and friends and watch people drink out of the punch bowl, dance with liquid courage, myself included, and have a drunken distant cousin approach you and give you their words of wisdom. Crazy, funny, and fast is what comes to mind at first thought but the tone was set for the evening. The lights were hung to give us the ambiance we had waited to embrace for two years. Dancing the rest of the evening away with the last of the diehards as most old folk grew tired and weary early on to retire to their recliners. This was a wedding, simple, cowboy boots, duck calls, decoys, food, drink and a celebration; a celebration to bring two people together. A unique wedding far from overrated, laid back and very fitting for us and who we are. The feeling to have so many guests come and enjoy two people is the most humbling experience I have ever felt. To take a moment and reflect there simply is not enough time to say hello to each individual but our hearts are full because of you and being able to bring this to Dover &  Jax to live it again is such a wonderful gift.

Marriage. So much has changed.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Calendar.

By Eric Mathes

I was on my way to a dinner date last week when my phoned beeped from an email and the subject line read: 2014-2015 DU Calendar Photo Contest.

Somewhere in the early summer months I, along with thousands of Ducks Unlimited members across the globe submitted a few of my favorite photographs to be entered in a contest. Each year, DU selects about 14 images to be used in their annual calendar, mailed out to members along with their bi-monthly magazine. The calendar has always been among my favorite things to receive in the mail. A reminder that a new page was being turned, and that a new hunting season awaited. I submitted a handful of my best images for consideration in the specified categories for this year’s contest with hopes that maybe one of my photos would catch a judge’s eye.

I received the email last week, but only read the first word; “Congratulations.” I erupted with a few shouts in celebration, pulled the truck over, and read the rest of the email. Smiling hard, I was skipping words trying to piece this message together. The email said that I had to resubmit a caption for my photo by a certain date, but did not specify which of the photos was selected. I quickly fired off a reply to clarify my selection. Not long after I received a response to clarify. “You actually had 2 photos chosen…” I read in the response. Blank stare. I couldn’t believe the news.

Sure enough, out of several thousand entries, two of my favorite photos (shown here) were picked from the crowd to be featured in the upcoming DU Calendar. My first thought after finding out which photos were selected was about the people and dogs that were involved in both of them. Both of these moments are but snapshots of treasured days in the field that I won’t soon forget.

Dover & Jax - yellow dog

The first selection was of a yellow dog named Sadie. She is owned by a good friend named Dominic Dupré in Lafayette, Lou. I have had some of my best days hunting with Dom and Sadie in the flooded rice fields of South Louisiana. This particular day was with three close friends on a rainy, cloudy morning in December of 2012.

We hunted mallards and pintails from a pit blind on a levee between two flooded fields. A picturesque morning of ducks circling in the stiff wind and back peddling over knee deep water. The four of us that made up the blind were no older than 24 years old at the time. I enjoy hunting with Dom because he is very knowledgeable and is an easy going guy with a passion for his dog. We make a good team. This was one of the last days I’ve hunted with Dom, but I am looking forward to reuniting with him and Sadie in Saskatchewan this fall.

Dover & Jax - phillip bonde

The second photo that was selected is one that I am again proud to be a part of. Starring in the photo, from a duck hunt in the Collins Marsh Wildlife Area in 2013, are Phillip Bonde of Kiel who is hunkered alongside Boise, a chocolate lab owned by Jeff and Stacey Lecher of Rangerwood Kennels in New Holstein.

We paddled out into the marsh on a very windy, crisp morning. I had scouted the area a few days prior and thought we  could pull off a good morning hunt with an abundance of sunshine and wind. Well, as some morning’s go, we showed up and the birds didn’t. After trying to scratch a few down over a few hours, we abandoned hope and opted to take a few photos in the shallow flooded waters.

I positioned Phil alongside the dog and had another hunter get Boise’s attention from above. I snapped a bunch of shots, and came out with one that I was really happy with. What I love about this photo is that it captures so many things that make waterfowl hunting what it is. It’s a culmination of the things I love about the sport and luckily for Phil and Boise, Ducks Unlimited felt the same way. I think it defines the sour days of hunting where success is defined by something other than a bag limit. I am happy to have this image and I wouldn’t trade it for a string of ducks.

My heart is full of joy and I’m very thankful to be representing something that I truly love and give so much of my life to. I’m excited about the opportunity, not because they are my photos, but because the stories of these people, these dogs, and their owners get to live through something a little bigger, if only for a short while. I have a lot of people to thank that were part of these two special moments, and I appreciate them letting me steal time from these hunts to capture something that more people get to see. It’s a heck of an honor and I very happy that other people have a stake in the celebration as well.

For everyone that reads my stories, or checks out my photos from time to time, thank you. You have all been very inspiring to me.

Traditional.

By Trey Arentz

IMG_2055

There are days that come along in life that can really test the strength of a person. About a month ago I was told one of the most heart-wrenching things I will ever hear in my life. After holding back some strong emotions and letting some little ones out, I was on my way back home from Madison.

IMG_0004

In my truck, on the 90 mile, one-road journey, my life all of a sudden stood still. I felt as if I was looking at my life going backwards. Old thoughts, memories, and emotions were flooding my body at one time. I had to turn my music down because everything I was thinking was being rudely interrupted by Florida Georgia Line. The worst long rides are the ones that have a meaning. Staring at this asphalt road of eternity, head against the head-rest, I was getting closer, one yellow line at a time.

When I finally arrived to my grandparents house, the feeling was comforting to say the least. I was greeted with nothing less then open arms and large, pearly smiles. On our way to the kitchen, I glanced over at my grandpa’s mule deer and antelope mounts. As we sat at the table, they asked how life and  work was going. Small talk. I smiled and nodded my head in the most positive way I could, but they knew no one in our family was taking the news well.

IMG_5293

My grandpa and I got into a conversation about the upcoming turkey season. Since this was brought up, I figured I might as well tell him I don’t know where my expensive turkey decoy is. He looks at me with the same look that he has for the past 21 years. It was the same look I got every time I told him I lost something. First thing we do is get up and go check out the hunting room. Passing the mule deer and antelope mounts in the living room, I am starting to encounter more memories. As we walk into the hunting room, something in the far right corner catches my eye.

My grandpa proceeds to keep moving stuff around looking for the decoy, and I make my way to the corner. Hanging on the wall, are the same longbows and recurves that have been there for as long as I could remember. I pass my two old recurves that I use to shoot, and grab the first longbow. I look at my grandpa and ask him, “ Isn’t this the bow you shot your bear with?” He looks over at me, smiles, and keeps digging. I remember when I was a kid, the stories he would tell me about his hunts. My favorite was of course his 300 lb. bear he had taken at 12 yards with, in fact, this longbow.

IMG_0015

After shooting a compound for about six years now and being successful, I’ve always looked back to when I shot traditional archery. As grabbed the bow off the hanger, I handed it to my grandpa and asked him to string it. (I know how I just didn’t want to take the chance of breaking it.) He hands it back and says, “You thinking about shooting traditional again?” As he does, I just smiled and we headed for the basement.

IMG_2091

Being an archer for the better part of 40 years now, my grandpa has an indoor range in his basement and a workshop filled with more arrows and archery equipment than Cabela’s. Walking down the old concrete stairs, I hold the bow firm in my hand. Not because I didn’t want to drop it, but because I was getting that familiar sensation again. Something I haven’t felt since I put the ole recurve down six years ago. As we make our way back to the workshop, I glance back at the target and instantly get a flashback to when I use to shoot down here everyday as a kid. I pass through the weight room thats well placed in the middle of everything and start becoming overwhelmed with inspiration. I’ve been down in this basement a million times, but I’ve never felt this way about it.

101_0052 (1)

It takes my grandpa about five minutes to find some arrows that are a perfect match for the longbow. I grab my old glove and knock the first arrow. As I start drawing the arrow back for the first time, I hear WHAP. I look back at my grandpa and he’s just shaking his head and laughing. Not realizing that I am shooting a 62” longbow I end up nailing the cross beam. My grandpa just laughs and says, “Do you forget that your not as small as you use to be?”

After that panic attack finally cleared, I took a knee. As I drew the bow back, I was imagining myself in my grandfathers shoes when he took the bear. I came to full draw, held for a second, and released. As I put the bow back down and got ready to knock the next arrow, I realized that I was clearly rusty. After about ten more arrows, my grandpa stepped in as he always did, which is why he was such a good teacher. I look back and all he says is, “Remember to squeeze the shoulder blades together and let the instincts take over.” I get back on target, get set, and I hear SMACK.. I then go into imagination and think, that would have been a double lunger, just like he had. I released three more and hear that distinct sound each time, the sound of my arrows hitting the pie plate. Already fatigued, I ended it there.

As we walk up to the target for the final time, bow in my left hand, grandpa on my right side, I looked over at him and thought, this is really what I want to do. From that day on, I made a commitment to myself, to never go back on a tradition. I take one last look at the bow and wish that one day I would earn the great success and fortune that he once did.

IMG_2059

Old Pine.

By Eric Mathes

IMG_0548

I would wake up in a twin bed, freezing cold, and I swear some mornings I could see my breathe while my head still lay on the pillow. I was in college and we stubbornly didn’t turn the heat on as the crisp fall crept over the lingering summer months. We were poor as shit, convinced that when that diploma came, all those problems would be over. I remember it being late October, maybe early November. It was my final semester at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh and I was so eager to graduate. So close.

I’d search for my slippers, reluctant to walk on the cold hardwood floors without them as I stumbled to the bathroom of the run-down college house that somehow cost a premium price. When I returned, I flipped on my computer to play some music. My go-to at the time was the album Every Kingdom by Ben Howard. The first track, Old Pine, was my favorite. I’d put on some clothes, pick up my iPod, and head to class. Walking down the street, I remember the amber colored leaves really starting to blanket the ground. It was fall and it was my favorite time of year. Surrounded by the stresses of higher education, I was always holding out for the weekend to sneak back home and head out hunting with my friends and family. That was my escape, and I relished in the struggle between the outdoors and schoolwork.

I must have listened to this album everyday for two months straight and it definitely stuck with me. It was perfect for those late night study sessions, and calming on those drives to and from home during the hunting season. As I listen to Old Pine now, a few years later, I close my eyes and I’m back on the streets walking to class. I’m loading my truck for the weekends away hunting, bundled up because it’s just so damn cold. I’m eating grilled cheese and Ramen noodles, pretending that I’ve figured out where my life will take me. Naive enough to think I know what’s around the next corner. That last part hasn’t changed.

IMG_0496

Old Pine defines a specific time in my life, a time that I started to understand who I was and what the outdoors meant to me. What those feelings of being a part of something bigger were all about. Breathing in that crisp, fall air. Spending time with people I love and meeting new people. Taking a leap of faith to venture out into the unknown. Heading north to guide hunts on the Canadian prairies. Packing up my truck to move to southern Louisiana, living in a little shack for the winter chasing ducks and geese. Fleeing to the woods of northern Wisconsin every November. Finding the right way to get stories, images, ideas, and memories out of my head for others to see. Something inside me has driven me to seek out these things, and listening to this song and music again just puts a lot of my past into perspective. Who I am today, and what made me this person I love to be.

I looked up the lyrics today, because I wanted to read every word. It really made me look back. Old Pine is such a reflective song, particularly focused on all those summer memories growing up. But you can’t help but think of younger years and all of the great memories you’ve made on so many different occasions. It gives me a liberating feeling of freedom that I sometimes long for while sitting in my office. Give Old Pine a read, it’s poetic:

Hot sand on toes, cold sand in sleeping bags,
I’ve come to know that memories
Were the best things you ever had
The summer shone beat down on bony backs
So far from home where the ocean stood
Down dust and pine cone tracks

We slept like dogs down by the fire side
Awoke to the fog all around us
The boom of summer time

We stood
Steady as the stars in the woods
So happy-hearted
And the warmth rang true inside these bones
As the old pine fell we sang
Just to bless the morning.

Hot sand on toes, cold sand in sleeping bags,
I’ve come to know the friends around you
Are all you’ll always have
Smoke in my lungs, or the echoed stone
Careless and young, free as the birds that fly
With weightless souls now.

We stood
Steady as the stars in the woods
So happy-hearted
And the warmth rang true inside these bones
We stood
Steady as the stars in the woods
So happy-hearted
And the warmth rang true inside these bones
As the old pine fell we sang
Just to bless the morning.

We grow, grow, steady as the morning
We grow, grow, older still
We grow, grow, happy as a new dawn
We grow, grow, older still
We grow, grow, steady as the flowers
We grow, grow, older still
We grow, grow, happy as a new dawn
We grow, grow, older still

IMG_0457

The lyrics, to me, describe what it was truly like to transcend into my own soul. To discover what made me, me. A reflection of past experiences that gave way to new adventures. A view inward to see what’s important to you, how certain things make you feel. What a nostalgic experience it is to put this album on. One of my favorite lyrics, if I had to pick, is “I’ve come to know that memories, were the best things you ever had.” I love looking back on old memories, because I think they give way to the next ones down the road. It’s inspiring and I look forward to the days ahead.

Easter.

By Nathan Miller

IMG_0897

After a questionable amount beer and whiskey, a utility knife was the weapon of choice to seal our bond, forever as one, sometime around the year 2000. It was the night when we became blood brothers. As incapacitated as it all seems, that moment stands out to this day and marks a time that two crazy souls became one. At least in our eyes.

IMG_0861 (2)

His name is Aaron Easter. We all call him Easter and it has been a few years since we have been able to truly enjoy one another’s company and get back to where our youth left off. Easter came in from Colorado, where he has made his residence the past seven years. This year was going to be different; I was finally ready and able to spend a couple days away from everything reality throws at us. No children, no work, no bills. Just my soul and I, and soon my blood brother Easter. Let’s see where this will go. We had no plan. We only knew we were on the hunt for Steelhead and nothing was more important. We had two days to find some fish, to fill everything that makes us live, most importantly Easter’s. He does not have ample opportunities to chase after these beasts of the rivers, and our passion alike for this is strong; so damn strong. Let’s roll out brother…

Thursday morning had me waking up to a baby slurping down a six ounce bottle next to me in bed. I sat up and looked over to see Easter making faces at my 11 month old daughter as Sadie was feeding her. Sadie and I looked at each other, confused at the moment. We weren’t used to a 6’3”, 225 lb. man laying in bed with us at 4am, but he was ready as was I to get this day going and embark on another adventure together. I was 20 years old again the second I stepped out that door and nothing was holding us back from making the most of the two short days we had together. No plan. Just two souls, some fishing poles and a fly vest.

IMG_0850 (2)

Rockford, MI was the first town to break to fish the Rouge. I had just pre-fished this river five days previous to try and find some fish, with some success. Rockford would be just a blip on the map today as we hit it hard for three hours through rain, sleet, wind and snow, with no fish. Time was short. We better get a move on. Newaygo was next to fish; otherwise called The MO. Rockford was a two hour drive from my place, and now onto Newaygo for another 45 minutes north. We stopped into the Muskegon Fly Shop to look for spawn. I knew our chances were grim in a fly shop, but they turned me onto some trout beads. I had heard of them before but never tried them, and a lot of guys have sour feelings when it comes to fishing them. As always, I love to support a local fly shop and I made the purchase on some beads and we were on the water minutes later, rigging rods. We were fishing under what seemed to be an abandon railroad trellis. It was hard to tell as the only tracks the trains leave are the ones that are made for them. An hour into fishing the trellis, drift after drift, Easter had snuck down around the pylon extruding from the harsh current. I looked over at him and his look was priceless: a serious man when it comes to the fight of a steelhead as he had a fish on.

After somber fishing, we were alive again and the fight went on, tiring the fish, completely knowing Easter would be saving this one for the grill. He took a nice buck, 5 or 6 pounds. He gave him everything he had to fill his arms with life again. We snapped a few pictures and I jumped back in the run; three drifts in and, wow, fish on! The line screamed from the reel. I knew right away I had a decent fish, and hoping for a hen to suck some spawn from. Easter would blurt out that this was the hen we had been hoping for. He made it very clear to not lose this one, as she carried the key for the salvation of our journey. He coached not only me but this fish as well all the way to the bank. I felt as if he thought I had never caught a steelhead before, but I remembered quickly, for everything that put a bend to our rods today needed a valiant effort to heed our success! A gorgeous plump hen rose to the bank to fill the stringer, providing the gold within her womb to keep this journey alive. But I guess these beads had us onto something here and anyone who calls this LINING FISH on this day fishing a deep run is a fool. These fish snapped, and gave us the treasure we had hoped for from the anticipation leading up to today.

IMG_0877

We wrapped the railroad trellis in our back pocket and headed north yet again for a 30 minute drive to Baldwin, where we would find a bar to feed our hungry souls and a few beers to wash the grease away. The bar burgers and beers were sleeping pills after a long, cold and wet day chasing Steel, and a few short miles later we were checking into a small trout lodge in what felt like the heart of Michigan’s trout country. For $65 a night I anticipated a hole in the wall motel, but this place was warm and cozy, full of trout nostalgia everywhere we turned. It helped keep the motivation alive to fish the Pere Marquette the next morning.

The Pere Marquette is one of Michigan’s premier trout fisheries and holds a giant name for itself during the peak salmon runs in the early fall, but Steelhead and resident trout abound here as well. The river comes with rules: keep your voice down and enjoy her, do not leave anything behind and pick up what should not be there. The river did not disappoint in her beauty the next morning, which was greeted with a few giant snowflakes, as we wisped our fly rods against the current. Although we would not find a fish here this morning we took in all the PM had to offer and once again we were on the road heading back into Newaygo to pull the railroad trellis back out of our pockets.

IMG_0892

The trellis did not hold her treasure she had the day before, but Easter had a hole in mind throughout this entire trip, and I knew he had been itching to get back to it one more time before our trip would have to end. We made our way a few miles up the river to what I now call the Easter Run. He had pulled a limit from this run one year ago nearly to the day in quick fashion and he was hoping for one more tug back before his return to the Rockies. Three drifts in and he blurted “fish”! I looked over and his smile once again said it all. If things could have gotten any better, I don’t know how it would have happened, for this was the icing on the cake. The last run; the last moments of the day lead to the last fish of this amazing adventure, and he took one more elusive creature far from our world to the banks of his reality. The feeling I felt inside is indescribable. A mere three fish total for two hard days of fishing and plenty of driving felt like a pile of success. The big spring push of fish from Lake Michigan had yet to happen at this time, but we encountered what we were after.

600 miles later, I was hugging an old friend goodbye only to tell him I would see him soon. Not a friend, but a brother of blood that intertwined one foggy night.

IMG_0838 (2)

Amish Turkey.

By Eric Mathes

IMG_8875

In the week leading up to my spring turkey season, I had mixed emotions about how things would go. Turkey hunting is my biggest challenge and I truly love the battle. The perfect chess match is how my friend Travis Mueller of Avery Outdoors described it. For the spring turkey season, I had acquired permission to hunt nearly 1,000 acres of private land. There surely were turkeys on the three different farms I was planning to access, but sketchy patterns and a lot of surrounding pressure made me reluctant. Over the weekend I tried to think of anything else I could to come through with a plan for the Wednesday morning opener. On Sunday morning, I woke up early to off-and-on rainy weather. I decided to get in the truck for a random drive to see if I could come up with anything else to consider for the week. I thought to myself, ya never know, maybe you’ll find something better.

I found myself on a familiar road that morning, one I had traveled before on a similar mission. I was approaching some farmland that is home to one of my most treasured hunting memories. There are two words that my friends know well, we affectionately refer to this goose hunt as; Amish Paradise. The area I grew up and now hunt is also home to many Amish homesteads and families in the Holy Land of eastern Wisconsin. Little secret? They are the kindest and nicest people to ask permission for hunting. I wasn’t sure if I would have another Amish tale to tell, however, I do now.

IMG_8856

Rolling around the property on Sunday, I turned my head and spotted a large bunch of turkeys. Out in the middle of a muddy, run-down corn field were five toms in full strut doing the dance. I just knew I would find good birds here. The bunch had something like 9 birds total, but I just remember watching the toms out parading together amongst their hens. I stopped only for a few moments to glass the muddy field they were occupying before putting the binoculars down to go ask for permission. It was a large property and only a few days before season opened, so I was hoping to catch someone in a good mood on the farm. As I pulled in, I saw a young Amish lad working in the back. He greeted me with a smile, we shook hands. I told him I was looking to turkey hunt and he mentioned that someone in the family had gotten a turkey tag for the spring. My heart sank. He said, “You can talk to Jacob, though, he is the one with the tag and he might let you hunt if he isn’t.” Perfect, one more try at a sales pitch. “He’s in the barn milking cows, you’ll find them in there.”

I headed to the milking parlor and saw a guy rustling around. “Jacob?” He turned with a big smile like we were best friends and came over to welcome me. I asked him if he had a turkey tag and he said yes. My hopes were shot at that point, but then he asked me when I had a tag. I said that my season started in a few days. I asked how he had done the year before and he said he hadn’t had much luck, but that there were plenty of birds in the area. With some apprehension, he asked, “Well, do you think the birds would come back if you hunted them for a day?” I shrugged and said it’s hard to say what they’ll do from now until his season came around, but for the most part agreed that they would remain in the area. I definitely didn’t want to push anything on the man, it’s his land after all and we have had great success hunting geese a few times in the back in the fall. The last thing I wanted to do was get into an awkward and uncomfortable situation with a land owner. We talked a little more and finally he said, “Well, if you want to hunt for just one day this week, you can. I don’t have a problem with that. But just one day. I hope you have good luck.” I tried to keep my composer, but I was fist-pumping like a champ on the inside. “Thank you,” I said. He again wished me good luck, and I did the same. Time to scout.

After getting permission to access the land, I spent the next two days with closer eyes on the property trying to figure out a pattern. Cold a wet weather moved in, because it’s Wisconsin and it just does that. Scouting trips on Monday night and Tuesday morning didn’t produce any sight of birds, the cold weather must have kept them in the woods and out of the wind. I came back tuesday night, the night before the hunt, and glassed the land from a hilltop without much luck. I thought for sure my chances were dwindling and the hope had been for nothing. I only had once chance and one day to hunt on this property so I had to make it count. My scouting had to justify a good sit the next morning and I wasn’t getting the results I hoped for. There was no sign of birds at all, but I was confident in the area and with the group I saw the first day. With the recent cold snap and rain, I just didn’t have a pattern, so I gave up. I put the truck in drive and turned the wheel to drive up farther when a glare of sun in the field caught my eye. I threw the truck in park because I knew, even at about 500 yards away, I just saw a turkey. I picked up my binoculars and tried to find the glossy back of a tom.

Sure as shit. Just barely over a hill, a quarter mile out in a muddy corn field, two toms were feeding over the wood line. I could barely make them out, but with the sun behind them, their feathers reflected a glair just visible to tell they were birds. It was the sign I needed, at just the right time. With time running out, I had to get back to work that night and wouldn’t be able to roost the birds before sun down. It didn’t matter. The site of the birds again was enough to convince me to go for it in the morning. I just had one of those feelings and I was sticking to my gut.

IMG_8872

I showed up a little after 4 a.m. and it was cold, the calm kind of cold where everything is quiet and brisk. Every step seemed to echo as my boots hit the ground. Right off the bat, the chips started to seem like they were stacked against me. I decided on the area I last saw the birds working to set up my B-Mobile strutter decoy. As I was walking to my spot, I noticed the weekend’s rain left some sheet water on the field that I would have to walk around. As I approached the water a goose sounded the first alarm, sending an echoing siren that sounded like a car horn. Strike two, I thought. There no way I  can get in here without being busted now, even though it’s early. Discouraged I pressed on to the spot I wanted to set up, on the edge of the field about 300 yards parks the geese. As my footsteps faded after the nested geese, soon too did their honking.

With an almost full moon, I didn’t need a headlight to make out the edge of the field where a section of hardwoods started. This would be where I would set up and wait for the first gobbles. I put my decoy out and tried to find a good spot to sit. I needed to be as quiet as I could but with the extra layers on in the 23 degree weather, I bet I sounded like a clumsy fool, snapping sticks and sliding on the frost. Either way, I was set and I caught my breath. Here we go, time to wait.

I wasn’t far from where I saw the birds the night before, though I know it didn’t matter, they could have ended up anywhere for the night. Daylight started to break and I heard the first gobble off in the distance. Ok, I thought, I’ll hear one closer soon. Again, about a half mile out, another gobble. Then another. Off to the south a little ways I heard another. And another. I could pin point four different gobbles between two other sections of woods, far enough away from my location. In my head I was already starting to evaluate the morning. It’s cool, you’ll hear two closer birds yet, just wait. Be patient. Nothing. It started to get a little lighter and it was clear that I was off my mark. These birds were blowing up the woods with a thundering show a long way away from me. Fuck… shit…. son-of-a…. I only have one chance. Do I stay here and hope this is where something will end up? Or do I try to make a move and set up closer? As I looked out across the Amish farmland I thought, there’s a lot of open ground in between me and these turkeys. It is just dark enough to still make a move without being noticed, if I could stay quite. I would have about a half mile to cross to re-set up and hope I don’t spook any unnoticed hens in the process. If I go, it’s now or never. It will be completely light soon. Ok, last chance gut check… Fuck it. I’m going.

IMG_7630

“You stupid, impatient, idiot. Whatever chance you had at these birds, you’re going to blow it with this move. Go back to the truck, you’re not cut out for this today.”

I second guess myself way too much. I know I should be more confident in my judgements, but whatever, I’m still alive. Carrying my decoys and slinging my shotgun, I started to make my way across the frosty corn field to the end of a pasture where the cattle would graze. In the shadows of the morning, I was trying to be as swift as possible. Familiar enough with the land, I knew my next obstacle was coming up. There was a series of barbwire fences that shuffle the cattle through different areas. Great, I’m over dressed and loaded with gear. Put it on the list. Cleared through the first one with easy. Ok, I got this. Hustled over some flat ground and listened to the birds continue to gobble from the roost. Ok, two more fences. Second one down. Dammit, I ripped my vest. One more to go.

I approached the last fence which was in a fence line running perpendicular to the woods where the turkeys were holding. I stopped to listen and find out where everything was. In the fading darkness I established two toms about 150 yards down the timber and two others off to the left in another section, about 250 yards away. Ok, now I was getting to be where I wanted. I scanned the wood line for cover and tried to figure out how in the hell I would get across this fence line without sounding like an imbecile. I looked ahead a few steps to see nothing but leaves and sticks covered in snow and frost. Great, this is where it ends. Nope, get your ass in there and don’t mess it up. You’re so close.

I calmed my breath and tried to get my game face on. Jesus Christ this is stupid, I thought. Just stay down here in the pasture, you’re close enough. I could have played it safe, maybe I should have, but I thought I had to move up another 50 yards to be in the best location given the terrain. If I can just get 50 more yards, I can make this happen. I pressed through the fence line and luckily didn’t make too much noise. All that was left to do was hike up a small hill along the wood line, try to sneak my decoy out about 10-15 yards, and find a tree to sit under. That’s it, the last stretch, the hardest part. Seal the deal, I thought, you’ve just trekked a half mile to get here. Make it happen.

IMG_8880

I made it up the hill and crawled the decoy out about what looked like 10 yards. Not ideal, but enough to be visible and it’s all I could muster in the morning glow. It was just about light now and the turkeys would be flying down at any minute. They were still gobbling back and forth as I eyed a tree to hunker beneath. Just then, a burst of feathers erupted from above. Oh no. It was a hen sitting in a tall oak. Busted. She flew down the line of trees towards the others. I was so close, and I blew it. The air went silent. No more gobbles. I hurried under to the tree and put my head down on my knees. I remember being disappointed. Coming all that way to be busted at my last step. Seconds ago there were four toms gobbling, but now the air was quiet. It was over.

I heard what I thought of one of the toms down the line fly down back into the woods away from the open field. My second sign that it was done. I could hear him purring, fading back into the darkness. Head down, I felt defeated. (GOBBLE). Head came back up. Wait, am I still in this? The two birds across the field were down from the roost in a bottom opposite of me. I could tell they were in the same field, but out of sight over the hill. They gobbled again. Alright man, get your shit together, you’re still in this. Just then, as sudden as can be, a big gobble behind me not but 50 yards. The fourth bird had made it around my back side and was in the pasture I last crossed. Oh, you’ve got to be kidding me. I turned my head slowing to see a big tom in full strut on the ground I contemplated settling on. I didn’t know what to think, but then I did.

I now had turkeys gobbling on both sides of me and realized I could work it in my favor if I called correctly. The bird in the pasture was in site of my decoy, the other two across from me weren’t. If I could use the single to lure in the other two by gobbling at my call, then maybe the pair would come up to try and compete. Maybe. I called soft, just enough to get a response. The two fired back quick with a gobble, the single answered. I called again, same thing. This went on for ten minutes without much movement. Not working, they’re just chatting back and forth. I could tell they were losing interest and decided to get aggressive, because, why not. I took a deep breath and worked an aggressive calling sequence through my diaphragm call. Finally with some luck on my side, the notes came out clean and crisp with a good rhythm that just sounded enticing. A few second later, I heard a gobble followed by another out front. These birds were gaining ground. They loved it. I called soft again, they responded even closer. I scanned the hilltop for a few minutes, 75 yards out, waiting to see two heads break the horizon. Nothing. I cut up again. Moments later, there they were.

IMG_8865

Atop the hill, the two males paused as they caught a glimpse of my decoy. They hung up for a few minutes, sizing up their competition trying to decide whether or not to move in. I cut up again quick and they made a dash, covering the 20 yards in seconds. I took a deep breath and realized in that moment what just happened. I was in disbelief, but now, I knew they were mine. I had no time to celebrate or relish in the feeling, I just kept my head down, pushed the safety off, and waited. The birds were moving cautiously towards me; fifty yards, forty, thirty, twenty. They turned to the side and I eyed up their beards to find the bigger bird. As they passed the tree in front of me, I decided for the bird on the right. I picked an opening between two hanging branches and waited for the tom to clear. This is it, two more steps. As he cleared the tree he stuck his neck out just enough and I squeezed the trigger.

The shot rang out with a boom in the calm morning air and I watched the turkey roll over in the dirt. His teammate was unsure of the noise, looking confused, but quickly retreated when I stood up. I walked out to the bird and counted 15 steps from my tree. I took a knee on the ground and waited for him to stop kicking. I looked up and over my shoulder at the land around me. I couldn’t believe it what I pulled off.

After I punched my tag, I grabbed my downed bird by the feet and started the mile long hike back to the truck. The feeling of fulfillment grew in my chest and I couldn’t contain a smile. I felt lucky and confident all at the same time. The ultimate game of chess had just been played and I had come out the victor. I hung the bird on the fence on the edge of the pasture to collect my thoughts and snap a quick photo with my phone. I laid on the grass, looked up at the sky, then closed my eyes, and smiled. I couldn’t have been happier.

Feels Like Spring.

By Eric Mathes

Dover & Jax Ben

We’re close now, I can feel it in my bones. That light at the end of the tunnel seems to shine brighter every day. It’s amazing to think that winter is finally coming to an end, giving way to a warmer sunshine and less outerwear to fill the truck up with gas. The woods sound like spring as birds begin to fill the trees again, and as the ground begins to thaw, the sap inside the noble maple begins to run with an eagerness that says it too wants to escape winter’s hold.

This past weekend I headed north to Amherst and took in a weekend of central Wisconsin’s beautiful scenery. The area is among my favorite places in the state, right in the heart of all things Wisconsin. I met up with some friends from Kiel, the Janssen family, and their relatives that lived in the Amherst area. The Janssen’s had tapped maple trees throughout a 50 acres area and with the warming temperatures finally climbing over freezing during the day, the sap had slowly began to trickle into the collection buckets.

IMG_8592

When I arrived at the homestead, the crew was put the finishing touches on the outdoor boiler. The sap was just barely starting to run, so we spent most of the day getting ready for the haul. The new handmade boiler was built in two parts; the wood stove oven and a 40 gallon boiling pan on top. The construction was almost complete when I had arrive, but all that remained to finish it was to line the inside with fire bricks. The bricks would help retain the heat, creating an even boil throughout the pan.

The rustic stove is really a thing of beauty, built to bring a new experience to the spring for everyone involved. We passed around a piece of chalk for everyone who helped to sign their name on the side of the stove. I carved my name with pride. The last big chore was to finish cutting a big pile of dried, scrap wood to burn in the stove which would boil the sap. There was quite a pile yet to go through, but together we sawed and stacked until most of it was gone.

IMG_8604

The camp was now ready for the sap to be hauled and it was time to wait for the bucket to fill up. With temperatures soaring near 50 degrees, it wouldn’t be long before the first collection started. We headed to the house and I closed the day looking forward to my next stack of pancakes covered in that sweet, liquid treasure.

Dover & Jax Stove

It’s amazing how much life a warm sunshine can breathe into a person. The work was laborious and it was nice to work up a little sweat without having to freeze to death. The feeling of spring was definitely in my step. Throughout the weekend, I couldn’t help but look more and more forward to the warming weather and a chance to stay outside without a break to warm up. I don’t need to speak anymore about the length of winter, the brutal cold, and the toll its taken on my mind and body. Even for Wisconsin, it’s just been cold. The smell in the air now gives signs towards warmer days and more daylight.

On Sunday, three of us ventured out on the Tomorrow River in search of trout. It’s still pretty early, but we were all too eager to walk the river. We figured the fish would be pretty inactive, which was confirmed in the number of fish we hooked into; zero. Although we didn’t catch anything, we saw quite a few fish over the two hour stretch.

IMG_8618

For me, being on the river was something sort of spiritual. It has been a while since I’ve felt that connection with the earth. I felt the water rush past my legs, I watched the eagle and hawks soar above the tree line, and I listened to the water running off the rocks. It was good to be apart of it again. As the temperature keeps warming, I look forward to chasing turkeys again. Over the past few weeks, big toms have began to strut their feathers, which means that early morning hunts will soon be in the forecast.

IMG_8609

Last spring was a difficult chase that left me empty handed after three consecutive weeks of hunting. After striking out, I hung my head for a while, but have renewed my desire to get back in the woods. Turkey season is a humbling experience that really tests every hunter. I never know what’s in store, but God willing and the creek don’t rise, I will have a success story to tell this year. Until then, I look forward to collecting sap and waiting for the snow to finally melt. Spring is a beautiful time of year, with experiences for the taking. I’m happy to have gotten a chance to explore it again and look forward to the warmer days to come. Here’s to holding out.

IMG_8613

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,580 other followers

%d bloggers like this: