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A Voice in Our Wilderness
John Husar's Timeless Writings on the Outdoors, Strange Meals, and Life's Simple Moments
By John Husar
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2004 The Chicago Tribune
All rights reserved.
Oversleeping was not an option for John Husar. He didn't appreciate a late sleeper among fishing or hunting buddies, either. He simply didn't want to waste any part of any day, especially the morning's first light. Too much natural beauty that might be missed out there if you were a sleepyhead.
John savored new beginnings. Whether it was a brand-new day, first meetings or reviving an old haunt. He most cherished the many "firsts" he experienced his young grandchildren. It affirmed his strong feelings about the natural order of things.
May 29, 1994
Kids learn from master and Grandfather too
You might say I waited a lifetime for the moment. I certainly daydreamed of little else for five whole years. I played the scenarios this way and that. Things had to be perfectly right when I took my grandsons on their first real fishing trip.
Oh, they had been in a boat with me once before. We dunked minnows for a few hurried minutes last fall in a corner of Aldo Marchetti's lake, and the older kid actually reeled in two crappie and a perch. He mostly wondered why those flopping fish were so "angry." He still was a little young.
But now he had been primed with his own spincast rod and practice plug, so he knew the sense of flinging a weight through air. Now it was a matter of the right phone call, which my good buddy Spence Petros made last week.
The editor of Fishing Facts magazine, a renowned angler and teacher, said he had found the mother lode of big bluegills on a little point beside an inlet at Bull Valley Hunt Club.
"If you want those kids to catch fish," he said, "that's where you'll want to go."
Spence came, too, making sure I didn't get too intense and ruin the sport for these kids. It was Spence and me and the grandkids, aged 5 and 3. Dad and Grandma were on hand for the grunt work in what would be a glittering team effort.
"Isn't this sort of like asking Jack Nicklaus to teach your kids how to hit a golf ball?" noted the bemused dad, Kevin Coyle. "It's sort of overkill, isn't it?"
Well, maybe. But if you want things done really right ...
Spence rigged the kids himself like an overindulgent uncle, drawing forth his finest $70 Shimano ultralight rods and matched spinning reels with superfine 2-pound test line. If they were going to learn to fish the right way, he growled, they might as well start with decent gear.
He had leeches for bluegills and medium fathead minnows for any crappie in the area. Spence was being selective. He knew that small to medium bluegills usually reject leeches, but the bigger fish find them irresistible. He wanted big ones, like the 70 huge 'gills his party caught in three hours two days earlier, up to 10½ inches long.
Spence also noticed something nifty at the time, when four large crappie also gulped the leeches. It made him want to see what they also would do with minnows.
On the day before we joined him, he found out. Spence said he had been up all night pacing.
"It was a rare instance in this lake when normally scattered crappie were staging before the spawn," he said. "I hooked one minnow through the lips, and it swam around until a crappie hit it, which meant I located them. I then hooked the other minnows through the back, and since they swim with greater distress, they were quickly taken by crappies."
In 45 minutes, he had 30 big crappie and six huge bluegills on minnows. And these were not ordinary crappie, but trophies of 12 to 13½ inches, fish that stretched from the tip of a finger to midway down the forearm. That evening Spence did it again, catching 10 more huge crappie and five 'gills on minnows.
"It was the best day I've ever had on big crappies in my life," he said.
Spence had noticed some roiling shoreline water where bluegills were building nests. By the time we got there last Sunday, the water had cleared and we could see hundreds of Swiss-cheeselike holes in the mud, many guarded by finning 'gills.
Spence clamped a tiny split shot on the line, hooked a leech onto a small hook and flipped the rig 15 feet.
"Here," he said, handing the elder kid the rod.
It was as easy as that.
They took turns for a while, Jon, 5, and Mike, 3, each feeling the fish pull, learning when to let them run, learning to swing fish ashore with the right length of line.
After a while, the 5-year-old wanted to cast his own bait, so I showed him how to pin the line against the reel base with his index finger, open the bale, gently bring the rod back and let the line go with a little whip. He promptly plopped the bait out there 20 feet with a nice arc, and Spence shrugged: "Pretty soon he'll be doing it on his own."
Just then the kid yelped, "I got one!" And that was it.
After four in a row by himself, all we had to do was extricate the fish, hook whichever leech the kid picked up himself, untangle the line now and then, and leave him alone. Soon he insisted on using "widows," having a little trouble with the word "minnows." By the time he got that corrected to "middows," he was catching bluegills and crappie wherever he cast.
Meanwhile, the 3-year-old was happily casting practice plugs with a tiny spincast reel, and he had begun to flip them well enough that I wondered what he would do with a real hook. So I tied on a Beetle Spin, but that didn't work. He wanted to let the spinner lay in the mud like a leech. I showed him how a retrieve should work, caught a crappie, and the older kid wanted to do that, too. So he began ripping minnows through the water as if they were spinner bait, and it's a good thing he didn't catch any fish that way or my credibility would have sunk.
When young Jon snagged a second tree across the way, Spence beamed, knowing what the kid will endure in years ahead.
"He's becoming a fisherman," he said.
Later came the sweetest words I heard all day: "Grandpa, I got tangled again ... but I can undo it."
In the end we had 40 huge 'gills of 8½ to 9 inches in the cooler along with a dozen or so crappie up to 13½.
"You sure you've never done this before?" Spence teased the 5-year-old. "Well, you're pretty good. It's not easy to cast a leech and split shot on 2-pound line. I've had more problems with your Grandpa."
So the scenario is complete at last and the kids are spoiled forever. They think this is how fishing always is.
Later, while casting practice plugs off the deck while waiting for the fish to fry, young Jon was asked who did the best.
"I did," he yelped, "because I caught most of the fish."
He was surprised when I shook my head no.
"You were the best?" No again. "Daddy?" Another no.
A grin spread across his face: "I know. Spence was the best because he helped everyone catch the fish."
Pretty smart for a 5-year-old. I think we'll get along.
April 20, 1994
Turkey hunt wet, cold heaven
Now, I'll admit it. I'll sit right here and wring my socks and grimace if you try to say this turkey business is normal behavior.
Regular folks just don't crawl out of bed at 3 a.m., swallow gobs of fat-boiled food, then slither up muddy farm roads before first light in the midst of a downpour.
I'll admit that. And I won't even contest the apparent nonsense of sliding around a cornfield to make noises that sound more or less like a confused owl. So maybe you'll jar awake a turkey that's still asleep on the branch of an oak tree. So the turkey's not going to come down where you want him, anyway. Or at least, that has been my experience the last couple of years.
I'll never forget last year's hunt near the strip mines of eastern Brown County. For days and days, it poured. This was the beginning of all those floods, remember? I'd been assigned the southern side of a mine road so slick with yellow mud you didn't dare drive it. The only convenient way to my spot seemed to be along a creek that crossed the road through a culvert.
I thought I'd ease down the embankment, make my way to the creek, then walk the bank far enough into the woods to be in turkey country.
In the dimmest predawn light, I saw the winding creek, and I saw the bank-or at least what I thought was bank. In two steps, I was thigh-deep in clay mud. It took all my strength to turn around and "pole" my way free with the butt of my shotgun.
Then came the ugly sucking sensation of my rubber boots coming off. I morosely wheeled around, flopped forward and scoured the mud to find my boots. I pulled them out one by one, slithered back to firm ground, found a rock, sat down and nearly screamed in rage.
Then I did what any turkey hunter would consider perfectly rational. I discarded my socks, cleaned out my boots, cleared my shotgun and squished up the hollow in full daylight, hoping to hear a turkey before it saw me. For four hours in the rain, I futilely tried to make a gobbler-any gobbler-answer my feeble call. And I was happy.
That's the insanity of it all. Turkey hunters enjoy any kind of misery as long as there's half a chance to contact a willing bird. You don't even have to shoot it. Just hearing it answer is enough. I tell folks it's part of being at one with nature, but I really suppose it's some sort of brain disease.
And so it was again last week when Mike Di Rienzo and I hied off to Jo Daviess County for the first of four Illinois spring turkey seasons. We stole through crunchy leaves the first day, hearing hens all around but darned few gobblers. That's the gamble hunters take in early seasons. Although you may be first to reach the birds, they may be too busy to come to your beck and call.
Those early gobblers are captivated by the charms of too many willing hens. They don't even look up when they hear a hunter's sauciest plea.
Unless you are lucky enough to hunker right in the path of a migrating super tom, your best chances are with inexperienced year-old jakes, who either have been chased away by stronger toms or are too stupid to recognize a grungy hunter's sexy bird remarks.
That's what Mike and I encountered the first day — three jakes skirting the edge of our cornfield. They clearly wondered about that racket we were causing in the thicket below. Unfortunately, they weren't gullible enough. While Mike and I crawled forth like Viet Cong guerrillas, the turkeys stayed just out of range.
That's when Mike tried to play his ace. He reached into his game pouch and hauled out a hen decoy he'd been carting around. He flicked the hen here and there, while scratching the ground with his other hand.
The jakes watched incredulously. They must have thought this was the busiest, hungriest, goofiest hen they'd ever seen.
After the jakes had walked away, shaking their heads, Mike turned to me with a scowl on his face.
"Don't you ever mention this to anyone while I'm alive," he hissed. "I couldn't stand my friends smirking at the image of me scratching a decoy after acorns." I solemnly promised to keep his secret — for at least a day.
But at least he tried something, which was better than some of the poor mopes in our group who were confined to blinds by an outfitter whose idea of turkey hunting is to plop as many hunters as possible in likely, confined spots and hope the surrounded birds will run into some of them. That may be fine for absolute neophytes who can't call or if one's legs don't work. But most turkey hunters have this compulsion to sneak after working birds through open woods. That's why it's a sport and not a shoot.
And that's what we were trying to do the next day when a deluge shut down the birds and there was nothing to do but pick a likely spot and sit down and wait like mopes.
Bundled in rain gear, Mike and I lay on the gentle slope of a wooded hillside and watched thick, gray sheets of moisture shield the bottom and shroud the opposite hillside. There was no sound but the drumming rain. We sat in the downpour for an hour and heard nothing else. And we were happy.
July 30, 1986
Shallow thinking brings out the best kings
When Henry Tews finally downed his tea at 7:15 a.m., it tasted mighty sweet.
The tea bag had been lolling in his plastic cup since we'd chugged out of Winthrop Harbor shortly after 6 a.m.
"I have a tradition," Henry had warned before the young chinook came aboard. "I always have a fish in the boat before I finish my first cup of tea."
He cackled contentedly, as befits a man who has stumbled onto a king salmon "honey hole" in Lake Michigan, with salmon abounding in the neighborhood of 15 to 21 pounds.
"I can't believe it," Tews chortled. "Every time I've gone out for two weeks now, they've been right here."
In all that time, Henry has not trolled farther than 500 yards off shore, and he has been virtually alone. The charter captains and other serious fishermen uniformly patrol deeper waters now, often settling for lake trout. Tews has been absolutely unnoticed, hauling 20-pounders into his 22-foot Sea Ray, "Father's Affair."
Henry swigged his tea and gloated, his trim, athletic physique belying a bypass surgery. "There must have been 300 boats out the other day," he said. "Not one was closer to me than three miles."
Tews admits to having no idea why the fish were there, which possibly was why he dragged me along. He figured we'd find out. But first we had to catch more than just one.
Time passed as Henry counseled patience. "We probably came out too early," said the Wheaton print shop owner. "I've been catching almost everything around noon, certainly between 9 a.m. and 2 p.m."
So we bobbed around and waited, checking lines and switching lures until another downrigger popped at last around 9:30 a.m.
This one was mine, and it was a good fish. For a second I'd thought we'd snagged a log or a commercial net. But the fish kept pulling and the line screamed as I eased the drag.
Henry killed the engine, pulled in the other lines and took down the antenna. That was a good thing because the fish hauled me twice around the boat.
We struggled for 25 minutes through a dozen runs, the fish sounding whenever it glimpsed the boat.
I worked the king slowly, gently, enough to feel constant resistance. I'd gain some feet with the reel but quickly lose them, often with interest. The 19-pounder fought until it was totally spent. It finally lay in my cradled arms, lightly hooked in the lip, without the strength to flick a fin. Now, I thought, this is fishing.
We checked our depths, and Henry's steel-blue eyes glimmered with triumph.
"Exactly 32 feet of water," he thundered. "And 24 feet down."
Those, indeed, had been intended to be the magic numbers. For two weeks they had been a closely guarded gift to Henry, and now he was ready to share. "I was at the dock when a guy came in with a load of chinooks," Henry explained. "I asked him where, and he said 34 feet out and 22 feet down, and that was all I needed to know."
Henry never did do much at 34 feet because his rigs began to pop at 32, and that is where he stayed.
He has been trolling a four-mile stretch between Winthrop Harbor and Zion, paying special attention to an electronic booster tower just north of Kellogg Creek. That's where we found our big king and, in fact, most of the fish we took last weekend.
There also was a 15-pound king and a 10-pound wandering laker, plus a number of clean, young 2- and 3-pound salmon — perfect fryers in butter with a touch of onion, garlic and parsley. We boated 10 of 11 fish, losing only one, and most came, as predicted, right around noon.
"I think we made a mistake going out so early," Henry said. "In fact, most guys may be going too deep and too early. By the time they come back from deep water, they're tired and don't think of working the shallows. And the guys who start later miss the best period because they're just starting out and they haven't found the fish."
As to why those fish were there, we can credit the miracle of electronic graphing. We found hordes of fish in water between 32 and 34 feet deep, hovering 22 to 27 feet down. A storm the night before had pushed many more onto the bottom, but they were not striking.
Excerpted from A Voice in Our Wilderness by John Husar. Copyright © 2004 The Chicago Tribune. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
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