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Amish Turkey.

By Eric Mathes

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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.

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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.

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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.

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“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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Hartford or Bust.

By John Bienvenu

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South Louisiana is crisscrossed with bayous, canals and just about every other type of waterway you can imagine.  If you drive 20 miles in any direction, chances are you will cross a bridge. Growing up here, you learn how to navigate these waterways and you also learn your way around a boat. I have been around motorboats ever since I can remember. Ski-boats and fishing vessels are innately ingrained in so many of my childhood memories. Within the last few years I’ve began fishing from a kayak, mostly due to the fact you can pretty much go anywhere in one, and the motor never fails to start. My dad, Jimmy, brought me on my first paddling adventure. I vividly remember him teaching me how to steer a canoe on a camping trip to the Lower Buffalo River in Northern Arkansas. As I recall, I caught on rather quickly, but he remembers a very different story, claiming I bitched for the next ten miles until I got the hang of it. Ill chalk up his memory loss to his old age.

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Last October my Dad and I decided to participate in a paddle race on the Bayou Teche. The Tour de Teche is a 125-mile long boat race stretching from Porte Barre to Patterson Louisiana. The Bayou twists and turns through rural farming towns and Acadian cultural meccas alike. It is a beautiful journey to say the least. My Dad and I were unloading our plain-old roto-molded kayak before the race began when we caught a glimpse of this beautifully handcrafted wooden skiff. As is turned out, the owner of the cypress boat was a distant cousin of my Dad, he even had an embossed plate on the bow reading “Bienvenu Boat Co.” We spoke to him for a while about how beautiful his craft was and he explained to us that he and his brother had recently gotten into building these wooden boats, and how much they enjoyed doing it. I could tell by the tone in my Dads voice that the idea of building his own kayak excited him. If you know my father at all, you know how nostalgic he is. His last two vehicles consisted of a 1973 Land cruiser and an 89’ Jeep wagoner, driving whichever one decided to start on that given day. The race stage began, and the rest of the day was spent paddling down the Teche towards New Iberia, but our thoughts still lingered around that immaculate wooden boat.

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Two weeks after a successful race finish I received an email from my dad. The email contained information about a strip-building boat class that was to take place just outside of Hartford, Connecticut in late January. The instructor of the class, Nick Schade, is the nations foremost kayak strip-builder and designer. Nick is a “Guru” in every sense of the word. He has been building and designing small wooden crafts for the last twenty years, and is incomparably accomplished in his field. Nick even has a boat permanently on display in the Museum of Modern Art. His business, Guillamont Kayaks, sells custom made vessels along with plans and supplies to build a boat on your own. With all of Nick’s credentials and an opportunity to learn from best, there was no way I was passing up this opportunity. We booked the class along with my younger brother Edward and my wife Leslie. My uncle Kip and his daughter Elizabeth would also be joining us on this adventure. Travel arrangements were made and all that was left to do was wait for January to come.

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The day finally arrived to head North and wouldn’t you know it, our flight from Lafayette to Atlanta got cancelled. An ice storm was sweeping across the nation and even South Louisiana couldn’t escape it. We rebooked a night flight out of New Orleans instead and slowly made our way east. It took a little longer than expected to get there since every bridge and overpass was iced over or closed from Lafayette to Morgan City, but we made to the airport just in time to make our flight. After another cancellation and a long night in the airport, we arrived in Hartford early Saturday morning. With no time to waste, we dropped our bags at the hotel, braved the nine degree weather, and headed to the Connecticut Valley School of Woodworking, the shop we would be building in.

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The front of the shop was a traditional woodworking store while the back was a fully functional workshop. In the woodshop we met Nick, the ex-navel engineer turned wood boat authority. Nick gave us a general overview of who he was and his passion for boat design, then we immediately jumped in and started the building process. The strip-building process is both tedious and forgiving. The process allows you to build a lightweight, flexible, and durable work of art. For the next five days our class of twelve would be working on a two-seater kayak, dubbed the “micro bootlegger”, and also a traditional style canoe. The class consisted of a very diverse group of individuals. There was the six of us coonasses from South Louisiana and the rest of the class was spread out from all over continental North America. Guys from Oregon, Washington, Maine, North Carolina, and even as far north as Canada. This made an interesting class even more thought provoking.

The northerners wanted to know if we ever paddled near Alligators while we wanted to know why the hell they would ever paddle in such cold waters! As the class progressed we learned about all the different aspects of building a wooden boat, the strip-built way. We learned terms such as: forms, center beams, beads, coves, book matching, block planers, Japanese pull-saws, and dookie smutz. Yes, the last term does actually exist as a type of wood filler/epoxy. We cut, scraped, sanded, stained, re-sanded, fiber glassed, epoxied, and re-re-sanded! Slowly but surely, our boats began to take form. It was a beautifully meticulous process that required all your attention and effort. We would get to the shop at 8 a.m., work until lunch, then work until dinner. Nick was the perfect teacher for this type of class. Not only was he a wealth of knowledge on the subject in general, but he also allowed us to learn on our own and make our own mistakes, then he would show us how to fix them.

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As the class drew to an end, and boats came to fruition, I couldn’t help but be on an emotional high. In front of me were a couple boats that started out as nothing more than two-inch strips of red cedar. The boats weren’t held together with nails or pegs, instead with mostly wood glue and marine grade fiberglass. We had shaped these bundles of wood into functional pieces of artwork. We enjoyed ourselves so much; all we could talk about was building another one, and doing this step different, or using this type of wood. In fact, my dad ordered a kit to have waiting for him at home when he returned! On the last day of the clinic we tried to get as much done on the boats as possible, as it was obvious neither would be completely finished at the classes end. We spent our last day traveling to Mystic, Connecticut, meandering around the old port city and sneaking into to old seaport even though it was closed for winter. At least we got to take a closer look at the old Waling ships before we were asked to leave.

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Nick was a great teacher and I can’t wait to get him down to Louisiana to teach another class! The clinic was a great experience and a “boatload” of fun. It gave me a much deeper appreciation for these handcrafted boats and an intimate knowledge of how they take shape. To be fair, the boats were auctioned off to class participants by pulling names out of a hat. We were lucky enough to get the kayak, which is now on a truck being shipped back to Lafayette where I am, anxiously awaiting its arrival. Leslie and I are going to finish it in a local woodshop here in town.

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Boomdogglin’.

By Nathan Miller

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It’s been a long winter and so many of us have an itch to get outside to just do something. I have an itch to see open water again. It has been a challenge for most winter Steelhead anglers to find a relevant source of open water that has not been hit or beat down by other anglers on Michigan’s rivers the past four months. I was happy I had set a date with Cody back in December to get on the river on March 1 of this year, but that date would be pushed back to the 7th, as the frigid air of these so-called ‘polar vortexes’ had yet to lift.

Cody was someone I met on a fishing forum. I was in search of some custom Steelhead floats (bobbers) last year and I went to the forums to get a few opinions from some of the more die hard anglers. Cody was quick to respond sending me a private message claiming he had a small business of making custom floats and jigs. His company is proudly named Great Lakes Floats and Jigs. I asked for some pictures of his work to get an idea of quality behind his product because physically meeting him would require a three hour drive west. The pictures looked amazing and I was excited to place an order with him for myself and my good friend Cam. He was quick to get to work on them sending us pictures of his progress. It was easy to tell this guy took simple pride in his work. After a short wait, they arrived at my doorstep with some bonus jigs attached inside.

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Through the last year, we maintained contact, and he had mentioned having me out to his side of the state to get on some fish. He was from a place where trout and steelhead are the name of the game on Michigan’s West side near Newaygo. Newaygo is a beautiful town with the Muskegon River running through the heart of it. It’s deep cedar encrusted banks and ravines are something to get lost in, and the fishing can be some of the best a person would see.

We met up at the Muskegon Fly Shop in Newaygo, a fitting place to meet someone new before a day of steelheading. This was a fly shop, not a sporting goods store, carrying most everything a fly fisherman or steelheader would need. It was small and had a straight glow to it carrying a full arsenal everything a fly fisherman would need. They even carried Cody’s jigs here. Cody was joined by his good friend Roger today and we were fishing from Roger’s Fish Rite drift boat. We made a quick hello and shake of the hand, purchased a few small items to support this local fly shop, and were out the door. We dropped my car off first a few miles below Croton Dam to use it as a spot later when we finished up the day. Then we packed into Roger’s ride and headed up river to launch the boat just below the dam.

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We launched the boat into the cold water and were fishing within minutes. I was quickly reminded this was no diminutive stream. The Mo (Muskegon River) is a vast river, trailing a swift current. It had been a year since I fished this last and it was all soaking back in again, with each drift through every hole and run in the river I was in a place I needed to be after a long winter.

Roger blurted the word Boomdogglin’, “it’s what we’re doing” he said. I guess it’s a term used while fishing from a drift boat and to some extent floating your line in sync along it. It didn’t take long after some small talk to figure out Roger was a peculiar fellow with sort of a dry, yet unique, sense of humor. He had a story to tell today and it would follow with some great laughs throughout the afternoon. His odd humor and his view on things in life made for an interesting day of dawdling fishing. I guess we were all pretty comfortable with one another; these were just regular guys breathing the same air. After an hour or two of good banter my float suddenly sank beneath the current. I set the hook holding my rod tip high-too high as I felt the head shake of a steelhead bust off my line after a few short seconds. These guys would show no remorse on me as they tried to shake the apple from my tree. I was rusty. It had been a long year since I felt the fight of steel and they would be sure to keep shaking me as the day went on. I was ok with the joking chat, made me feel comfortable with the two.

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The fish were getting the better end of the stick today; the water was running low and cold with not much of a warm up for some time to get things going while Roger kept rolling his stories along. We ran into a few fish here and there, but the bite was light. Somewhere in the midst of it all the conversations started shaping into women and what us men love about them. I told the guys you know the fishing is slow if we conversed over the pleasures of a woman and why we leave a warm bed while lying next to them seems foolish at times. During one of Roger’s explicit exploits on his so called glory drift, his float sank, fish on, as he made an effortless battle to bring the respectable hen to the net to finally break the ice. It took me a moment to realize just how fast he brought the fish to the boat, as I told them both I would have made that fight last a tad longer to suck in all the glory these remarkable fish have to offer. We had hope.

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An aching back, cold fingers and six hours later, would show us Roger’s fish would be the only one of the day. I felt nothing to that attribute, I had a great day fishing with a couple of guys I had never really met, and that made the day a fine memory. Cody’s work in a float is flawless and what may be effortless work to some for a simple bobber is something special to me. I love to enjoy an opportunity to fish with something hand made from someone’s shop, it seems to bring a special sensation to the table. To top it off the fish that was landed today was taken on Cody’s float and jig which somehow humbles me. To be in the presence of these two men, who took in a complete stranger and made feel at home on a drift boat, was a great feeling. I enjoyed hearing their past fish stories from around this area. Their knowledge reminded me of an extraordinary old man I met on a river in Northeast Michigan years ago, who was patient, and kind enough to take me under his wing for a day and catch me my first Steelhead. They are an amazing fish and one that every angler should hold high respect and gratitude towards. This isn’t pan fishing. There is a little more effort or knack to it than that. They shared a day with someone less knowledgeable but had common ground. I respect them both to have a gem they can visit in their backyard any given day and to have acquired what I see as great awareness and understanding to the elusive Steelhead. Cody and Roger, thank you for a day of Boomdogglin’ on the Mighty Mo!

First Visit.

By Eric Mathes

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When I dropped off my young dog at the trainer in Illinois a few weeks ago, I knew it wouldn’t be long before I traveled back for a visit. I took my black dog Crash to a good friend of mine to spend the next six months training a few hours south of Chicago, near a town called Fairmount. Leaving work early last Friday, I made the near six hour journey south to see my partner in crime. It’d been almost three weeks since I’d dropped him off, which seemed much longer in the frozen Wisconsin winter. I wasn’t going to inspect the progress, as Crash hadn’t been there for long, but it was my only work-free weekend in March, so I thought I’d get in a little trip.

Crash is now six and a half months old and growing like crazy. After passing the five month mark, his legs started growing like little weeds. I started with this cute little pup, but before long had an uneven, lanky dog who was waiting to grow into himself. I really didn’t want him to grow to be a 75 pound monster, but only time will tell. His trainer was saying that he was growing a bit since I dropped him off, I just didn’t know what that meant.

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As we pulled up the house of my trainer/friend Jon-Michael Rull, I jumped out of the truck with some hustle in my step. Jon-Michael greeted me in the yard with a beer and we headed to the barn to let some dogs out. As he opened the pen, I called Crash’s name and he came running over and about tackled me to the ground. We picked up where we left off again and played around a bit in the yard. Giving him a look over, Crash was starting to fill out his long legs with a little more mass, giving him a fairly muscular shape for a young dog. He look as healthy as ever and I was happy.

As I said, Crash has only been away for a few weeks and I began his basic training about a month before he had left. Upon arriving, Crash has been going through collar conditioning to introduce him to an electronic collar. He is a very attentive dog and has picked up new lessons rather quickly. Through collar conditioning and healing drills, Crash was also introduced to gun fire for the first time about a two weeks ago.

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“Have you ever shot a gun around him?” Jon-Michael asked in a text message. Figuring there was a story behind the inquiry I called him right back. “Well, we introduced some shooting today,” he explained. “The first shot, from about 100 yards away from the dog, send Crash running under the truck.” We both had a good laugh because it’s all part of the game. Since then, Crash has accepted the noise in his daily training regimen and it’s on to the next lesson.

I woke up at about 6:30 a.m. the next morning and had to double check the temperature. I threw on my boots and headed outside with a cup of coffee in a balmy 34 degrees.  It felt like an afternoon in May as I let a few dogs out to run. Soaking in the sunrise, I looked out onto the miles and miles of open farm fields. After a quick breakfast, we loaded the dogs and gear to head out to some nearby training grounds. We made quick work at an elaborate set up in a big grass field neighboring a river bottom. The setting was pristine compared to the winter desert in Wisconsin and I spent the day breathing in the warm air.

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Gun dog training set ups can range from simple to very complex. Our set up this day would offer a variation of challenges for dogs of all skill levels. After watching a few experienced dogs run through the set, it was Crash’s turn to pick up birds. I was eager to go through the motions with him as I let him out of his dog box.

His young age is apparent, fueled by desire and undiscovered instinct. I heeled him and grabbed a shotgun from a stand and loaded it. Sitting at my side in the holding blind, Crash looked up at me with confidence that he knew the drill. I looked down and nodded back. I walked Crash to the line and sat on a short stool. My young dog heeled and sat on my left side as he has learned to do and looked out ahead for his first bird. We would run four, single marks ranging from 50 to 200 yards. He would do each one individually and would get some help if he lost his way. The game at this stage is all about confidence building and positive reinforcement.

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As I fumbled a few shells into the shotgun, Crash sat and waited. His patience is astounding at a young age. Ready, I called for the first bird to be tossed by the electronic thrower and shot in its direction. Keeping an eye on the dog, I hold his long lead line with slack in case he makes a break for it. After I shoot, as the bird is falling, I reassure Crash with a sit command. Willingly he accepts and waits. I call his name clearly and he fires off the line. His charge excites me and I couldn’t be happier to see him run with such eagerness. Crash hits the birds and picks it up quick. I whistle for him to return and he makes a bee-line back to me. As he runs back I send him as much praise as I can to let him know that what he just did was amazing. Happy dog, happy man.

Without much hesitation, Crash heels again at my side and we eye the next mark, running through each of the next three birds without a major correction He’s right where he needs to be and ready for the next step. I left shortly after our training session that day with a feeling of excitement for the next few years to come. It’s not only  a few month process, but a long journey that we will both make together. I look forward to checking in again next month to see where his progress has taken him. Crash is a great dog and I’m very happy to have him.

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Where We Left Off.

By Eric Mathes

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The plane couldn’t touch down fast enough when I landed in Lafayette, and wouldn’t you know it, I was in the back row waiting on every single person to find their way out the door. Time stood still, but I was finally back in Louisiana. I called Roland Louque who was on his way to pick me up. I told him I almost to baggage claim and that I’d be out in about 15 minutes. He didn’t hesitate to tell me that he would park the car and come in to meet me. I have great friends. I was watching for my bag when I saw someone enter the double doors, it was Roland. It was good to see my friend, it’d been almost a year since I had last seen him in Arkansas. Like I said, a year is way to long to be without things that are important. We headed back to his house to pick up Pacer, his black lab, and packed a few things for camp. As we rolled through town, I couldn’t help but notice that it was 63 degrees at 6 p.m. I had just left a bitter cold Wisconsin and the southern air filled my lungs and gave me life again. We were riding down West Bayou not far from Roland’s house when he asked me if I was going to leave the window down the whole way to camp. I told him that it was a good possibility, I was trying to soak up as much of this trip as I could, including the fresh air. Without wasting too much time, we got the truck packed and headed back to Gueydan.

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The hour drive to camp seemed like it took but a minute, all the while Roland and I were catching up on the year that had passed. Roland is never short of stories and things to talk about, which makes him a good travel companion. We talked about the lease and how the management had been this year. Finally we rolled into camp to meet Paul and Ms. Cherie who would be joining us for the morning’s hunt. Upon our late arrival, we found the camp quiet, the two already fast asleep in the loft. Roland and I took some time to unload gear and settle into camp. I was feeling pretty exhausted from the day’s traveling, but I managed to stay awake for a while before finding a pillow.

The next morning’s alarm came quick and I got up pretty fast. I was eager to see Paul and Cherie, so I went to make some coffee and made a quick gear check for the morning. Roland was up and Pacer was stirring around a bit. Finally I spotted a pair of knee-high, indian moccasins coming down from the loft. It was Paul Guidry, one of the finest men to ever walk the earth. He was followed quick by his sweetheart, Cherie. The pair are among my favorite people in the world, two I longed to see on my journey back south. Ms Cherie is always smiling, always very gracious and kind. I was in good company this morning and couldn’t wait for the sun to come up. The call came from the quarterback, we’d be heading to the Hotel blind. A few cups of coffee and some conversation about teal and we were off into the darkness.

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As we were making the four-wheeler ride to the north part of the farm, I took up the rear. I remember looking off into the darkness, admiring the smell of the ground around me. It had felt like an eternity since I had left. What I missed about the farm the most was, well, the farm. I missed the levees, the grass, the water, the big canals. Everything that goes into making this farm so special.

When it comes to hunting though, I missed managing things with Roland. I really love what goes into the Tulé Club and how we set up a hunt. The nights before include continuous checks on the weather and talk about bird movement. All the while you try and dial in a set up for the next morning and think, what’s the best way to fill a stringer full of birds? Roland and I work seamlessly in our setup and it’s a lot of fun to work with an open, yet determined mind. I was happy to feel back in the groove and was looking forward to putting out the morning’s set.

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We pulled up to the Hotel and Roland looked over with something like, “Ok man, you do the duck decoys and I’ll take these guys to set the geese.” “Ok.” Right away we were back to the old ways, back where we left off, like nothing had changed and a year hadn’t separated our last hunt together. In that moment I remember feeling so happy and fulfilled. As a hunter, it was right were I always wanted to be. After a moment of reflection, we split the levee and I started my setup.

Fact. You can tell a lot about a man by how he sets his decoys. Watch how much time he takes, how much he looks it over, and notice that he’s never satisfied. That’s the mark of a hunter I want to share a blind with. That’s how Roland was the first day I hunted with him in Louisiana. Restless and always looking for the perfect set. Those ‘perfect’ days when everything lines up don’t come often, but I’m thankful to have shared some of those days with him. Those days are special because it feels like such a success. Days of ultimate satisfaction are few, but they are fucking sweet.

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If there’s one thing that is for certain when hunting with Paul, it’s that he’s always going to hope the teal show up. Always. “Look’s like a teal morning,” he’ll say when the weather gets right. His fondness of the little feathered rockets makes him the quintessential coonass. A man who loves to cook and eat the teal, as much (or maybe more) than he does hunting it. On this morning he was hoping for teal, and I was hoping he was right. The decoys were set and we began to settle in the blind, I was eager to get settled in.

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The sun came up and no shit, the teal started buzzing. I didn’t have to look over to know that there was an excited smile on Paul’s face. As every bird flew by, I knew he was getting more hungry. I’d be lying if I didn’t agree. Finally it was light enough to see when the first bunch came whipping down the levy. Without a call, we raised up and scraped a few from the bunch. Just like that, the hunt was on. A few high-fives and we settled back in. For the first half hour, heads were on a swivel and teal were falling from the sky. It was a small frenzy that kept a blind full of adults acting like little kids.

With ducks hitting the water, it was Pacer’s turn to get to work. Pacer looked a little bigger this year, a sign that he hadn’t hunted quite as much as him or his owner would have liked. We joked that he was just taking his time, that it’d be a long morning with many more birds to carry. A slight out of shape Pacer still beats 95 percent of dogs in the field. P is no joke, he is the real deal. As serious of a hunter as Roland, he doesn’t miss too much. He hunted hard through the first flurry and I in awe just being in his presence again. It made me excited for my new pup, Crash. I hope the two will be able to share many hunts together in the future as Pacer has much that he can teach a young dog.

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The teal offered a good start to ease the patience, but I was in search of pintails and specklebellies. The morning drug on after the first flight as we waited for the sun to come out, that’s when the action would start. As luck would have it, we were nestled in between two massive roosts of geese and ducks, right in the middle of the mess, and right where we hoped to be. As birds began to pass back and forth, we started to work some big ducks. The soft, but steady wind helped guide the birds right into the spread with clear shots above. Throughout the morning the wind would die down, causing the group to miss a few shot opportunities as the birds were working in some weird angles from the blind. The company was great and that’s all anyone could have asked for.

As the wind picked up again, the specks began to fly and Roland went to work on them. With a man who is still teaching me to be a good speck caller, I added in some clucks and buzzes. We worked together on the weary, January birds, but patience prevailed and we brought a few in close. Out in front gave Cherie the best opportunity to be the lead shot on every goose we tried. We picked off birds almost one by one and soon were close to 20. I would be a long morning but we were all content going to battle with the birds. Finally the wind would lay down for good and the sun was warming the earth to a point we called it a day. With a few full stringers, Paul handed up 25 ducks and geese when we hopped out of the blind.

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The kill was bountiful but it was the company that made the day. Being alongside Roland and Paul is inspiring as a young man. The two share a bond that defines friendship to the core. I can’t tell you the lessons I’ve learned from the stories they’ve told, each one a treasured moment I won’t soon forget. It was great to see Ms. Cherie again and share a hunt with her. She brightens the day wherever she goes and I am thankful to know such a fine southern woman. It was a great feeling to pick up where we all left off. I sat on the steps of the camp and looked out on the land while Paul was fixing breakfast. I couldn’t help but breath deep and appreciate the presence I was in. It was great to be back.

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The Return.

By Eric Mathes

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I’ve spent a lot of time the last five years roaming around from place to place during the fall. This year was different, much more grounded, and without the freedom to go where I wanted with a lack of vacation days at my new job. I’ll be honest, it was an adjustment this season after a year like last year. It’s been almost a year since I returned from a winter in Louisiana and I’ve been yearning to get back. So many people I haven’t seen and so many things I haven’t gotten to do since I left. I wanted to be there again. Thankfully, on a day that needed it in December, I talked with Roland Louque about finding a three day weekend in January to jump on a plane and go. I talked with a few folks at work and found some wiggle room in a slow week and swiped the card for a ticket to make my return.

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A year is an unacceptable time to be without anything you love… and I love Louisiana. I love the people. I love the food. I love the sights and all the beautiful sounds. I love how the outdoors so woven into the threads of life. Where pots of ducks and boat rides in the swamp are something that people don’t cringe at. It’s natural. It just feels so right being there. So to be away from that, by choice, has been something that I didn’t realize I would miss so much. I started to count down the days until my departure from the frozen winter.

When I came back to Wisconsin, I realized how much I learned about myself while spending an entire winter managing a private hunting club. I like to go back and read some of my own stories from last fall and more than anything I can remember how every experience made me feel. I can remember the heat in October during the weeks leading up to the season. All the blood and back breaking sweat that it took to get things ready. All the snakes and spiders I killed getting the blinds uncovered. Laying in bed at night with such satisfaction and anticipation. I remember my last day in camp, looking back on a record breaking season. I remember feeling fulfilled beyond expectation and eager for what life had in store around the next turn.

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It’s hard to be away from some of your closest friends. Traveling has taught me that there are so many great people in every place. When you take so much time to get to know them, it’s hard to say goodbye after all the adventures. Being away for a year has been hard after this last go-round. I was anxious for that plane to touch down. In the days leading up, I could almost feel the southern sun on my face. I could imagine getting back to Lafayette and then on to Gueydan. I could see the farm again, the rice fields flooded with just enough water. I was excited to cross the canal and head down the gravel road until the rumble of the cattle guard gave the last sign that camp was ahead of me. I wanted to touch the ground and feel the water. I can’t tell you how much I wanted to be back.

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The hunting season this year was different for a lot of reasons, but for the most part it’s just lacked a lot of my favorite hunting partner. Since I started hunting with Roland about five years ago, I’ve felt more in place with waterfowling in a way I always hoped. Roland and I click on just about everything that makes me tick as a hunter. I love being around those kind of guys. Hunters who try new things, adapt, and roll with the punches with a good attitude. Nothing’s too serious, but at the same time, it’s all business. I appreciate everything we do so well together during the season. After a year like last year, something was definitely missing as the hunting season went on. I missed it. I was looking forward to putting out a good set, listening to Roland call specks, and catching up on all the lost time.

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Among all the other people I was very excited to see again, I was really looking forward to meeting up with John Bienvenu at camp. Since John started writing with Dover & Jax, I’ve been anxious to connect with him again. I was looking forward to talking about his travels and diving into some story ideas. John has an ambitious spirit and a unique perspective on the world. His energy ignites a spark in me for the things that this stands for, and I appreciate his outlook on life. I was looking forward to kicking back and talking about some great things ahead with him. Being around like-minded people fuels a passion for life and as of late, it was exactly what I needed.

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I was growing impatient waiting around for my flight to leave Milwaukee. I wanted to be in that world as soon as I could. I wanted to be out watching the sun come up, staying outside long enough to see it fall back down again. I was looking forward to losing myself in another adventure and another experience. It would be a short three day trip, but I planned on making it count. I didn’t know what I was in for, but I knew I was ready to be in a moment that I didn’t want to end.

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