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.
Hanging some antlers on the wall is a dream that sparkles in every deer hunter’s eye. Unsurprisingly, big bucks dominate deer hunting marketing and media. I will admit I’m not immune to the images and hype.
But at this time in my life, my main priorities each deer season are observing tradition, pursuing new experiences, and doing all I can to secure meat for my family. My 2020 deer hunt embodied those three as much or more than any other, spread across two weeks and three distinct settings. Continue reading “The Year of Untouchable Bucks”
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.
After my incredible deer hunt in the Mississippi bottomlands of southeast Minnesota last season, I’ve been hot to find similar territory for future excursions. And since the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife Refuge contains almost limitless opportunities for somebody with more ambition than sense, it was an obvious place to start.
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.
Nobody smiles at 4:40 am. Nobody at my house, anyway. But Friday morning, I woke my kids up that early, knowing they would be smiling a lot that day- eventually. They had the day off from school, and we had a big day planned at Mille Lacs Lake.
Our little Ford Escape slinked down the resort ramp between rumbling trucks and wheelhouses, onto the white expanse. It was a few minutes before sunrise, though we wouldn’t see the sun that day due to thick cloud cover. Winds were moderate and temperatures were expected to rise about ten degrees to near 30 by day’s end. It wasn’t a picture-perfect day, but it could have been worse.Continue reading “Tullibees and Happy Kids on Mille Lacs”
Way up north, in the far reaches of Cook County, hundreds of deep cold lakes lie hidden in the hills and shaggy conifer forests. This is the stronghold of Minnesota’s lake trout population, with dozens of lakes hosting populations of one degree or another.
There is a special place in my heart for lake trout, and an honored place on my table for any of the salmonid family. Since our trip to Crystal Lake last spring in the BWCA, I had been looking for my next opportunity to go after more of these delectable fatty fish. Also since last year, I had developed a deep burning desire to take a solo trip, which I had never done before. A permit for one person for Entry Point 44- with lake trout in Ram Lake and Little Trout Lake- seemed the perfect way to scratch both itches.Continue reading “BWCA Entry Point 44: Ice-Out Lake Trout”
When I was growing up in the ’80s, the smelt boom on Lake Superior was already over and fading into collective memory, becoming legend. “Smelting” in its heyday was something everybody knew about and a great many rushed to the rivers to partake in. Nowadays, it’s almost exclusively a “used to” activity; you might have heard it too: “we used to go up there and fill up a barrel with smelt in half an hour.” In recent years, however, I’ve learned that the smelt still run and a select few still pursue them.
Last Wednesday, I bought a smelting net from a guy on Craig’s List for 10 bucks. The next day I headed for Lake Superior with that net, hip waders, a 5 gallon bucket, what little information could be gleaned from the internet regarding current conditions, and a whole lot of hope. The plan was to start up the shore after sunset, and work my way down if I found nothing. The first stop was the booming metropolis of Knife River.Continue reading “Do Something New: Smelt Netting”
Easy victories, camaraderie in the outdoors, a warm place to lay my head at night. These are all things I like as much as the next guy. When I pried myself out of bed last Thursday morning, however, I knew none of these things awaited me on Lake Mille Lacs. The lack of all three things, however, pointed toward a high probability of good fishing, which was more than I could resist.
The latest buzz hinted that the west side of the main lake was just becoming accessible, and some folks had gotten out to the mud flats on ATVs and snowmobiles and found great fishing. The ice wasn’t reliably thick yet, it was said to be wet around cracks, and roads and bridges had not yet been extended past the bays. I don’t have a snowmobile or ATV, and I have no interest in being that guy who ends up needing a towing hookup at the bottom of the lake. My plan, if you could call it that, was to drive to the lake and see if it looked reasonable to walk out to the nearest mud flat. If it seemed foolhardy, I knew there was some fishing activity happening near some resorts, which I could fall back on. What I found when I arrived exceeded expectations; there was a well-worn road coming off the public access already, which immediately split off in three directions. I quickly packed up and started hightailing it for my destination, some 2 miles distant.Continue reading “Trip Report: Lake Mille Lacs, January 2019”
As many times as I’ve suffered from bitingly cold hands and fingers, there is only one time in my entire life that could possibly eclipse the way my fingers felt recently. When I was pretty young, my dad took my brother and me out in the boat to do some last-minute fishing before heading home from the cabin. All I remember was learning how to set the hook, the big juicy bluegills we boated, and my hands being so cold that I probably cried. Late last month, as I gripped my canoe paddle without actually feeling it, my old record for cold hands seemed almost certainly broken. Unlike that memorable day from my childhood, however, I definitely did not shed any tears. This was the last morning of my inaugural whitefish netting trip to northern Minnesota.The air that day was stuck in the low 30s, pushed around by a light wind, and punctuated by intermittent drizzle. The previous four days, unfortunately, were pretty much the same.Continue reading “Do Something New: Whitefish Gill Netting”
It all started on an October morning, almost a year ago: I was cruising up highway 65 with my dog Johann for an overnight grouse hunting outing in the McGregor/McGrath area. I’d had too much coffee and, well, had to go.
How bad? Well, I knew I wouldn’t make it to my destination, only about 5 miles distant. So I stopped at the first opportunity, a small area to pull off the highway next to a drainage ditch. As I hurried down the berm next to the ditch, a pair of wood ducks made my heart stop when they flushed from under the bank next to me. This of course hastened the inevitable. Luckily, I didn’t end up needing a change of clothes. But the combination of surprise, discovery, and frantic zipper work cemented that moment in my memory and sparked an idea.Continue reading “Do Something New: Spot & Stalk Duck Hunting”
After a hot and sweaty couple of miles on the trail, it didn’t matter how cold the water might be or that there wasn’t really a beach. Once we’d found our campsite, taken off our packs, and changed, my kids and I took to the lake for our hard-earned reward. We spent about an hour playing in the water before going ashore for a break. I was made to promise we weren’t done swimming. After sitting in the shade and eating raspberries a while, my son said wistfully, “I wish we could stay here a week, just to swim and eat berries.” He was in paradise. We all were. Continue reading “Bring a Kid: Backpacking”
Are you looking for a way to get kids into the outdoors? Do you want to do something simple, accessible, universally appealing, and fun? Take them berry picking.
I took my kids yesterday to some public land in east central Minnesota with the hope of finding some mushrooms and, if lucky, some raspberries or blueberries. Well, blueberries ended up being the main attraction, with some bonus raspberries and mushrooms as well. This is why we call it “foraging,” and not simply “harvesting.” You never know what you’re going to find.Continue reading “Bring a Kid: Berry Picking in MN”
For my fortieth birthday, I told my wife I’d like to take the river fishing float trip I’d been thinking about for over 5 years. As spring approached, I started to think critically about this plan, and realized that bad weather could turn a good river trip really bad in a hurry. On a river, we’d have a starting point, a destination, and a finite time to reach that destination. Rain- especially of the relentless kind- would not only make that time miserable, but potentially dangerous. Shifting the trip to the Boundary Waters would not only give us flexibility in terms of dealing with the weather, but also a chance to get into the lake trout that had successfully eluded me over the winter.
There is a pathetic time of year that comes after the ice melts and before spring really gets going. Fishing is slow, and turkey hunting hasn’t yet started. It seems every year during this time I find myself itching to get outside and just do something, if only because the weather can be so seductive. This year, I came across a couple mentions of spring sucker fishing that really piqued my interest, especially when I read that suckers are supposed to be tasty when smoked. I thought about when and where I might be able to try this, but didn’t come up with much; I spent a couple hours probing a creek by my house with no results. Then it dawned on me that I’d have the opportunity to try some cold northern rivers on my way to see the sharp-tailed grouse dance (another story, another time). Perfect. Once I’d identified my chance, I couldn’t not try my hand at sucker fishing.Continue reading “Do Something New: Sucker Fishing (And Smoking)”