A couple days ago, my daughter found a single cherry. I could not have been more elated.
It was our first Sand cherry. We’d been searching hard for two whole days, covering almost 10 miles on foot, in three distinct parts of Minnesota. The triumph was not so much the harvest (ultimately a couple dozen cherries) as it was the successful conclusion to our foraging quest.
I recently took a day trip on the Mississippi to do some fishing. It’s something I hadn’t done before, but had been considering trying on the many fishable rivers in the area.
It’s good I did, because it will probably stand as one of the highlights of the entire summer. To tell the truth, the plan was so simple, it really couldn’t fail: just me, my kayak, the river, and any smallmouth bass that were in the mood for a tussle.
I was on the phone last night with an old Minnesota fisherman. He asked if I’d done anything interesting lately. I said, “See if you can guess. What are yellow with black markings, plentiful, and taste good when they’re battered and fried?”
“Yeah, well, okay….here’s another hint: they wiggle and flop when you throw them on the ice next to your sled.”
For years I have dreamed of camping and ice fishing in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Biting cold and slush-laden lake tops have kept me home the last two winters. That was fine; I’m not one to press my luck. But the warmer-than-average weather we’ve enjoyed lately had me itching to get at it.
It all started about two years ago. My deer season had almost passed without a single deer sighting. I’d spent two rainy days in a deer stand on private property, then one especially frigid day hoofing it on state forest land. If it weren’t for the good fortune of my brother and dad, we’d have been short on meat for the year.
Best Laid Plans
From the warmth of home I started looking for new places to hunt deer, in order to increase my chances for filling the freezer in following years. I paid attention to the “Special Hunt” section of the regulations for the first time, and the state park hunts intrigued me. The Minnesota DNR website revealed a treasure trove of information that helped set things in motion.
I settled on one park with a high hunter success rate and a large offering of tallgrass prairie. Although that one is always an antlerless-only hunt, I never turn my nose up at the chance for meat. Plus, it seemed like the perfect place to attempt a Minnesota rarity: a spot and stalk hunt.
The next ten months passed slowly while I waited for my opportunity to toss my name in the hat. As it turns out, I had to wait two years before being drawn for a permit. When I received that coveted post card, however, I did not wait at all to begin planning.
Once again from the comfort of home, my plans took shape. Satellite photos helped me identify likely hiding places for deer on the prairie. Topo maps added to my understanding of the terrain and suggested travel routes for both hunter and quarry. A phone call to the park ranger who was the hunt coordinator confirmed something I’d already suspected: most hunters crowd into the woods in one relatively small part of the park. This was great news to me, along with arranging with him so that I could camp within the park (normally closed to camping by deer season). With about a week to go, everything looked perfect.
Once within a couple days of the hunt, however, everything was not perfect. Snow was on the way. Sustained high winds were expected and temperatures were on a downward trend. Despite sitting in 60- and 70-degree comfort during the opening weekend, I faced temperatures a few days later that would come uncomfortably close to single digits. Reluctantly, I reserved a hotel room and considered the fact that I might not be able to hunt out in the open as I’d planned.
I arrived at the park the afternoon before the hunt to do some scouting. There were about 4 inches of snow, the most recent installment having arrived the previous night. Despite making walking more difficult, this turned out to be an unexpected blessing: it became incredibly clear where all the deer had been (and hadn’t been) in the previous 24 hours.
After I’d trudged over a mile and reached some oak trees, I found the spot to be. It was in a little valley of sorts, where mature oaks formed a convenient travel corridor. I didn’t linger long, but did encounter one doe. With a sitting spot identified, I planned to return first thing the next morning.
A Day to Remember
There was a light breeze in my face as I marched about a mile and a quarter in the dark. Two deer sprang from a thicket just before I reached my destination. I took it as a good sign and settled in next to a twin-trunked oak.
The action began with movement uphill to my left, just where I expected deer to emerge from their beds. Two does crossed cautiously through an opening in the trees. I didn’t take my shot because I believed they would come down the trail to present me with a closer, better one. Instead, they opted to cross the trail and go out across the prairie. I didn’t despair because I believed that spot was good, and that it wouldn’t be long before I saw more deer.
Well, I was wrong. The wind increased steadily and began swirling around me. I applied every layer I had. When light shivers had almost become uncontrollable shakes, I poured a mug of coffee. I sent text messages to family members and did my best not to look at the time. By and by, the coffee ran out. I scanned the woods, listening and obsessively checking all the places most likely for deer to appear. I turned my head farthest left to discover the rear half of a deer, only about 15 yards downhill.
Three things struck me all at once. First, its fur was rich brown and shaggy, like the winter coat on a horse. Second, it seemed too large and muscular to be a doe. Third, I was astonished at how it had snuck in so close to me. I needed to get a look at its head, but there were many trunks between us.
It meandered around down there, munching and semi-alert. I finally spied a glimpse of antler and relaxed mightily (it occurred to me later how completely opposite that reaction is from most other deer hunts). Turns out he had a spindly 8-point rack. When he intersected my swirling scent, his head shot up and he actually bolted back toward me. At ten yards, we stood with nothing between us in a tense staredown. He finally flicked his tail and meandered through the woods and out of sight. I wasn’t shivering anymore.
About 11:00, I was cold once again and had no choice but to leave. I needed to sign in at the ranger station at some point that day, so it seemed a logical next step. Ryan was friendly and informative, as he’d been on the phone. The harvest was minimal at that point, and some hunters had already left for the day. I had the chance to talk with some of those other hunters, and one hinted at something I expected state park deer to do: stay bedded and watch you walk by. Since it would be a long time before I could sit still again without getting chilled, I decided to try a little spotting and stalking there in the woods.
My strategy was to act predictably by walking the trails, looking for deer I could circle around and try to stalk. The first one I spotted was bedded in the trees on a hillside across from the ridge I was on. It was a small buck which appeared to be missing a right antler. The next was a doe in some thick willows on the edge of a swamp. I thought she looked small and didn’t consider shooting. She was going to let me walk past, but when I turned and took a couple steps in her direction, she was quick to get out of there. The last was another small doe, bedded down the hill from the campground— a stone’s throw from where our family camped several years ago. I was glad she was on the small side, because shooting a deer just yards from where we once pitched a tent didn’t appeal to me.
The remainder of the day was to be spent in my first spot. While on the way there, I saw two does hustling through some trees toward the prairie in front of me. They disappeared behind a rise, so I stood and waited to see where they would appear. In a minute, another pair did the same. I looked left and saw yet another doe running from left to right across the grass with a big buck in pursuit. They, too, vanished behind the hill. I didn’t see any of them when I moved on a few minutes later.
About a hundred yards short of my goal, it smelled like somebody spilled a 55 gallon drum of doe-in-estrus scent. I stopped in my tracks, supposing that buck and doe were near. After about 10 minutes spent in observation and indecision, I continued cautiously. That pungent scent seemed to be blowing down off the prairie, so I kept a hairy eyeball on the hillside to my right. The air freshened up by the time I reached my tree.
Before I cooled off enough to put any heavy layers back on, a doe descended into the woods. That pungent scent filled the air in my little valley once again. She picked along steadily and denied me any shots before disappearing over my right shoulder.
Since she was meandering, she could easily have ended up in my lap without notice. I stood up, hoping to see her before she saw me. Two more deer filtered through the brush on my left a minute later. I was positively surrounded.
I did my best to watch both directions, but soon I could hardly move without being seen by the duo on my left. Still standing, I raised my gun at the first opportunity. Only one seemed to move at any time while the other kept watch. I was hard pressed to either lower my gun or keep it trained on them. Pretty soon I was wavering; whether it was from exhaustion or the cold, I didn’t know. One stared hard at me and even stamped her foot. I thought it was over.
Fully on alert, they finally reached the trail and began to follow it. Mercifully, one stopped in an opening about 50 yards away. They both dashed up and over the hill at the shot.
I found her in the bluestem when the West was bleeding shades of purple and orange through the clouds. Coyotes howled off to the south. In minutes, the clouds peeled back to reveal planets and stars on an increasingly inky sky. It was a dynamic ending to a memorable day.
I notched the tag and got to work before my fingers could turn numb. That relentless, stinging wind bit at my face, but could not wipe the smile from it.
I hit the road a little after 6:00 a.m. Fargo was my first real stop, for a PLOTS Guide and hunting license. Then it was a matter of winding through the countryside on the smaller roads, surveying some public parcels with the PLOTS Guide pages showing me the way.
I haven’t had many fun surprises lately. For better or worse, life has been plodding along at its sedated, pandemic pace. Nothing seems to change and there isn’t much to look forward to. Until Thursday, that is.
An invitation came out of the blue from my friend Scott Mackenthun, who is a Fisheries manager with the Minnesota DNR. He asked if I’d like to go out with him and try to catch lake sturgeon. I’d never caught one before, and wouldn’t have thought that was likely to change. I was intrigued, to say the least.
Now, I’ve known Scott for about a year. He’s a keen outdoorsman and biologist who naturally knows plenty about whatever fish he sets his sights on. He also shares many of my interests, including doing new things and helping other people enjoy outdoor experiences.
So, last night I happily accepted the role of protégé. It would have been foolish to decline his offer. This was the best lead I’d ever had on a lake sturgeon fishing experience, after all. I grabbed three dozen nightcrawlers as directed and met him at the boat ramp at the appointed time.
Not far on our way up the river, Scott took a sudden turn to greet the anglers in a boat he recognized. I understood immediately why he spotted it so quickly from afar- it’s bright yellow. As we pulled up alongside, a fellow named John reported some success at netting shad. Scott was eager to try and collect some for our purposes, so we took a short detour.
On the far side of a large 12-foot flat we found good numbers of shad. Well, we found them on the sonar screen, anyway. Scott tossed his net while I tried to keep the boat over the school. He threw it 8 or 10 times without success. Those shad seemed wise to the game. I, for one, was having a great time watching the process, never having witnessed it in person before. Scott was definitely more disappointed than I was at not having picked up any free bait.
With a few minutes of daylight left, we came within view of the first spot Scott had in mind. John’s banana barge was already parked there, so we anchored about 150 yards away and tossed our lines in.
Before long we were catching up on jobs, family life, and the outdoor industry under constellations, airplanes, and meteors. The wind all but faded away. The scent of driftwood campfires along the riverbanks filled our nostrils. Though the temperature was dropping quickly, my body was relaxing noticeably and shedding the stresses of the week. I didn’t care at all what would happen or not happen; I was already getting what I needed.
After about an hour and a half, John’s boat fired up the motor and headed downstream. There had been no signs of action from them, so it seemed they were doing as well as us. It wasn’t much consolation, of course, but the change prodded us to move on as well.
John’s instincts were apparently similar to Scott’s, and we again played second fiddle at the next spot. Scott positioned the boat at the upstream edge of a dropoff. Hooks and high hopes were cast toward the deep and the waiting resumed. We switched off our headlamps and picked up where we left off- about halfway between our kids and the new world we find ourselves navigating.
A familiar numbness began to grow on my toes, so I poured a mug of coffee. Once or twice Scott shook off the cold and let out an audible shudder. Between the chill and the lack of action, I think we both wondered how long we might be able to keep at it. All that was forgotten when a bell rang out in the dark and John’s boat lit up.
A rod could be made out in a beam of light, bent over like a seven-foot question mark. There was splashing, talking, and the flash from a cell phone camera. Once or twice more in the next hour or so, they confirmed in the same way that there were indeed fish in the area…just not our area. We took it as a good sign and renewed our commitment to the mission. I did what I could to reinvigorate my enthusiasm by imagining lumbering behemoths slurping up our nightcrawlers.
Lake sturgeon persist in Minnesota mostly in the bigger rivers, like the St. Croix, Mississippi, and Rainy. They cruise the depths, locating food with keen, albeit ancient senses. It is well known that they are an old fish species, dating back literally hundreds of millions of years. Their shark-like caudal fins and armored appearance harken back to a darker, more brutal age. They are survivors. As with crocodiles, their longevity on this earth testifies to the fact that good engineering isn’t necessarily pretty.
As the hands of the clock swept past midnight, I began to make peace with a fishless outing. All at once Scott detected a bite. Then he second-guessed himself.
“No, it’s there. Here, take it.”
It didn’t put up too much of a fight, but then again, my first lake sturgeon was not a giant. After the release, Scott estimated its length at around 30 inches. We both forgot to take a measurement- something that would have been unforgivable with a 60+ inch specimen. But it did happen; I have pictures and a little video footage to prove it.
Knowing its exact size seems hardly important, compared to having the chance to reach out and touch the Triassic.
Berry foragers, rejoice! The juneberry crop this year appears to be robust- as was last year’s- and they’re fruiting right now. Never had juneberries? I’m not surprised. They’re easy to miss, but maybe you should give them a closer look. Continue reading “Foraging in Minnesota: Juneberries”
Every year about this time there is a lull in the foraging season here in Minnesota. The early season has passed and the frenzy over morels, fiddleheads, and ramps is over. The summer mushrooms and berries really haven’t started. However, while raspberries, blackberries, thimbleberries, and other members of the Rubus clan have yet to even finish blooming, their little brother is here to take center stage.
The Ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris) seems to be gaining in popularity among foragers, if mentions in social media are any indication. Posts about “fiddleheads” are becoming more and more common this time of year. Also apparent in the social media soup is how much confusion there is when it comes to knowing which species are edible and how they are identified.
Some people- a proportional few- are vocal in their opinion that the Ostrich fern is not the only edible fern in Minnesota. While that may be true for sometimes complicated reasons, I will not subscribe to that school of thought. Allow me to explain why.Continue reading “Foraging in Minnesota: Ostrich Ferns”
Ramps are special, and the season is short. For some foragers, it’s the taste of Spring, and they wouldn’t miss it. I’m not that fervent, but I do like them nonetheless. This year, I made a point to branch out and do more than scrambled eggs with ramps. Now, I’m no chef, so don’t expect any groundbreaking ideas or recipes here. My perspective is that of an avid forager and great fan of trying new things. Continue reading “What to Fix: Recipes for Ramps”
Once again, I blame social media. For what, you ask? For the ridiculous fame that ramps seem to be “enjoying” nowadays.
Of course, people have known about ramps for a long time, even holding spring festivals for them in parts of the eastern U.S. where they used to grow prolifically. I say “used to” because it is well known that wild ramp populations are hurting. Because of that, they really don’t need any extra harvest pressure. Every foraging group I subscribe to on Facebook, however, is currently experiencing Ramp Mania. Continue reading “Foraging in Minnesota: Ramps”
I’m not a new-year’s-resolution person. Rare are the times I am moved to state such aspirations formally, and rarer yet are the years when they survive to see the next changing of the calendar. Still, I will frequently look back on the past 12 months as that milestone approaches each year. My reflections have been more rewarding than usual this time around.Continue reading “New Year, New Adventures”
Normally I wouldn’t be thinking about our Christmas tree in October. In fact, we’ve had a hand-me-down artificial tree for about the last 15 years, so it wouldn’t occur to me at all. But some relatives were telling us they’d be at the cabin this year for Christmas, and I suggested they get a permit to take their tree from the woods for the occasion. So in the interest of encouraging others into the outdoors, I snooped around for information from Minnesota DNR and the Forest Service, and emailed them some web links.
What I found actually surprised me. As far as I could tell, the permit for harvesting a tree from Minnesota’s state forest lands would cost $25. That was a higher price than I expected. However, the permit for a tree from Chippewa National Forest costs only $5.