“Hunt the Experience”

“The beginning is often a poor place to start the story of a duck hunt. The true devotee of the wind-swept autumn waters hunts many other things besides ducks. He hunts the unfolding secrets of the dawn and the message of the wind. He hunts the curling waves and the tossing tops of suppliant trees. He hunts the poignant loneliness of a tender, departing season and the boisterous advent of one more rigorous. All these he hunts and, old or young, he finds them as they were before—primordial, healing, and soothing to mankind in his whirling world of complexities.”

-Gordon MacQuarrie, “A Pot-Hole Rendezvous”

I hunt experiences. I’ve been very honest when asked. I hunt and fish to write and would’ve starved long ago if my life depended on it. I would do everything quite differently if forced to do so for sustenance.

A foolhardy squirrel hunting adventure recently added weight to these words. It involved a church charity contest pitting at least twenty firearm-wielding, small-game hunters with beagles against four idiots and their longbows. It didn’t end well for the idiots. It never has. We’ve yet to make a single harvest in several years of participation. We get up early, we fling arrows into the trees until we get hungry, then head back to the church for coffee and desserts while everyone else is weighing in. It’s been a riot. We wouldn’t change the laughs for all the squirrel cacciatore in the world.

It was during this hunt that my friend Cary, one of the aforementioned idiots, muttered something that really spun my wheels. We’d just whistled several shafts across the tail of a terrified black squirrel, when he muttered something about a gun. “Sometimes I do it for the feeling. Sometimes I do it for the groceries. When I’m doing it for the groceries, look out, it gets ugly.” I understood what he meant. I’d felt the same chasing turkeys on several occasions. There is nothing wrong with ugly. There is a time and place for ugly and there is a time and place for elegant. Both of them get the job done but the tools, processes, and frame of mind vary greatly.

Whichever you strive for depends on your goal — a successful harvest notwithstanding. That part is obvious. No one is fishing with empty lines or hunting with empty bowstrings. MacQuarrie wasn’t pumping an empty 12-gauge. His gun was loaded and ducks were shot, but that was only part of his experience — a small one at that. This was the running theme of his entire catalog of works and why I hold them close to my chest. In fact, I’ll be very sad if the friend from whom I borrowed them realizes they are missing.

I prefer classic outdoor literature to anything written today. The world was slower and it was a more romantic time. The pursuit was paramount — no matter the weapon or animal — and the results were always secondary. Hemingway took plenty of game in Green Hills of Africa but the results pale in comparison to detailed passages like this:

“To go down and up two hands-and-knee climbing ravines and then out into the moonlight and the long, too-steep shoulder of mountain that you climbed one foot up to the other, one foot after the other, one stride at a time, leaning forward against the grade and the altitude, dead tired and gun weary, single file in the moonlight across the slope, on up and to the top where it was easy, the country spread in the moonlight, then up and down and on, through the small hills, tired but now in sight of the fires…”

-Ernest Hemingway, “Green Hills of Africa”

He didn’t have the storytelling tools we have at our disposal today. He had to invest time and words to set the mood and make the mundane elements interesting. That is where the real art was made. Writers like Hemingway and MacQuarrie excelled at keeping the romance alive when sharing their experiences. They understood that every outdoor adventure had a predictable beginning and end, and focused on the poetry in the middle. Their audience was less distracted, in addition, and had more time to read and appreciate what they were reading. That isn’t the case, today. The world is too noisy.

Storytelling is different now. The audience is different now. People live post-to-post, sharing the bulk of their lives with the masses. Hunters can shoot a deer, post a photo or video, and summarize the story in very few words. Most have nothing to show if there isn’t an animal on the ground or a fish in their hands. The average sportsmen doesn’t want to read a paragraph about returning to camp or watch a fishing video without a monster trout on the line. There is too much content available to appreciate what is being seen. We are over-saturated.

Think about the last time you had a lackluster day afield and thought “well…nothing worth posting about happened this trip”. I have. And I can guarantee many of you have as well.

Chew on that a moment, think about how insane it is, then remember these words:

“It may not have been post-worthy but it was absolutely worthwhile.”

My friend and podcasting partner Steve (Angell) called me to chat awhile back. He told me he wanted to start using the phrase “hunt the experience” for Traditional Outdoors. I loved it. I thought it fit the show and was a fantastic message to send. We started using it the next day and its been our creed ever since. Steve even made a video about it. He’s proud of it and I am proud of him for making it.

Check it out. I think you’ll enjoy it. It says everything it needs to say without saying anything at all.

You can watch the Hunt the Experience video here. If you haven’t, please check out our podcast and consider subscribing. We would love to have you at our campfire. If you are interested in Gordon MacQuarrie, I highly recommend you start here. It is a fantastic read. Follow it up with the Ol’ Duck Hunter trilogy if you enjoy it. It changed my life. Feel free to reach out to me on Facebook if you want to talk outdoor literature and have recommendations. I can’t get enough of it and can give your recommendations, as well.

Tied to a Moment

FlyTying2

Watching an obsession form can be enjoyable and often humorous — especially when looking into the mirror.

I quickly realized the benefits of maintaining my own arrows early in my bowhunting journey. It made good fiscal sense. I was shooting a lot; I was missing a lot; and the costs were mounting. I could either bring my arrows to a shop and have them re-wrapped and fletched, or I could do it myself for a fraction of the time and cost. I saved up, bought a plastic jig, some generic wraps, and a few packs of feathers. I fletched my very first set of aluminums with that setup and killed a deer soon after.

Learning to fletch was a no-brainer but I discovered more than I signed up for. I knew I’d save money by learning to fletch but didn’t expect the activity to be so enjoyable. I fed the addiction by spending money, on shafting and fletching materials, yet my appetite grew. I wanted more out of the archery experience and was ready to move to the next level — wood arrows.

I started buying discounted cedar shafts whenever I could find them and scoured classifieds and online auction sites for bulk nocks, points, and fletching. Going to the hardware store in search of wipe-on urethanes and cements became routine, as did weathering the unnatural lacquer stench that wafted through our home and soaked into our clothes. I realized my reasons for the effort were no longer monetary when I graduated to feather choppers and burners. I wasn’t saving money and I didn’t care. I had further immersed myself into the archery experience and didn’t intend on going back. I was ready to kick it up another notch, in fact and vowed to kill a deer with a wooden arrow.

It happened that very season. On a crisp, October, evening a doe passed in front of my brush blind and back to nature courtesy of one of my crudely-decorated cedars. I felt invincible. The high was indescribable. I learned that an experience, no matter how good, can be amplified through added difficulty.

Fast-forward to 2018 and my next addiction. I loved fly fishing the moment I picked up a rod and knew it was only a matter of time before catching fish with purchased flies wouldn’t be enough. I would have to tie a fly and catch a fish with it. Period. It was an inevitability.

My fishing friend’s were interested in helping me get started whenever I’d mention it, but stitched in the following disclaimer:

“You won’t save money.”

I considered it a challenge and began tying much faster than anticipated with the help of a my dear friend Thom (Jorgensen) and the lifetime’s worth of accumulated tools and material he handed over. I was a babe in the woods — we both knew it — yet he gave me very little instruction, save for a “have at it” grin and this nugget:

“Your flies are going to be sloppy and look terrible at first. Know that going in.”

My plan was to bury the treasure chest within the bowels of my workshop until winter. There was plenty of hunting and fishing to do and I didn’t need another activity. However, curiosity got the better of me. Within a week, my impulses sent me rummaging through box and Web in search of simple fly patterns. The variety of hooks, thread, furs, and feathers were overwhelming at first. I relied on my limited time on the water to help me sort out my needs and pick a pattern that would catch fish no matter how badly I botched them. Caddis fly imitations seemed like the best bet. I’d been fishing with various forms of caddis for months, understood their lifecycle, and felt them rudimentary enough to cut my teeth on.

I began with their larva form in a size #14, which was a bit bigger than what I was currently finding beneath the rocks of the Rogue, but I wasn’t ready to tie anything smaller. The results were to be expected. I struggled with every element of fly tying from threading a bobbin to mashing a barb. I stabbed myself often. I had little idea as to which hand to tie with. And I broke thread every fourth pass around the shank. The latter resulted in a grub sized olive abomination.

The setback made me try harder. I tied well into the early morning hours and had half-a-dozen olive disasters on the kitchen table before calling it quits. They ranged from too fat to too thin but I was proud of the progression. It meant I was improving. I kept tying the following morning, throughout the day, and into the evening, getting more confident with the materials and tools. When I grew tired of nymphs, I moved to dries, testing myself with an olive, deer-hair, caddis.

Tying a dry, even a basic one, was more difficult than expected. I made the wings too long, didn’t use enough fibers, used too many fibers, and kept covering the hook eye to the point I couldn’t thread it. I also found out I was trimming the wrong end of the fibers, allowing water to penetrate and sink the fly. My tying improved with those realizations and I was able make a handful of serviceable flies to test the following Friday.

I hit the river at 5 p.m., wet-waded in, tied on a small Hare’s Ear, and followed the current to my favorite bend. It was a warm, overcast day with random showers. The fishing was slow but I didn’t mind. It felt good to shoot line again. I fished for several hours, changing flies often with little luck save for a few 4-6″ brown trout.

As it began to get dark, I moved further downstream in search of greener pastures. There was a wide, shallow stretch of water there that was perfect for swinging a wet fly. I tied on an unweighted purplish prince with a yellow collar, found a seam, and tossed it into the drift where it was immediately hit by a decent 10-11″ chub. It wasn’t a trout, but it was something, and I was grateful for the action.

A nice 11" chub I caught on a wet fly.

Everything changed from that point on. The sun went down, the bugs came out, and the fish began to rise. And when they rose they did it ravenously, leaving the water like breeching humpback whales for anything resembling a bug. Everything winged was on the menu, from mosquitoes to white/tan colored moths and dragonflies. If it landed on the water, it disappeared.

I knew these were small fish and probably planted but didn’t care. I hadn’t experienced anything like this for months and wanted to catch fish. I cut off the prince, thumbed through the sparse but coveted “my flies” portion of the box, and retrieved “the best” of my olive caddis. I tied it with shaking hands and eyes distracted by the chaos around me. Then, as I wetted the knot, the water rolled on the downstream side of a large rock in front of me. I reacted with a quick roll-cast before my brain had a chance to foul it all up. The line splashed just upstream of my target. The caddis fluttered down after and I gave it a quick skate as it crossed the threshold of the rock.

The reaction was violent and immediate. My line went tight and the caddis disappeared, as if swallowed by the river itself. The moments that followed were not nearly long enough. I kept the rod up, let the fish pull the slack from my fingers, jumped to the reel, and fought a beautiful 11-12″ brown to the water at my knees. What happened next was heartbreaking. I tossed my rod into the shallows, wrapped a wet, shaking hand around the trout, removed the hook, and reached for my only means of evidence collection. But the camera was not easily retrieved and trout aren’t fond of being captured. Right there, beneath the light of the moon, I fumbled my achievement into the murky water and traded a dramatic conclusion for a tragic comedy.

But that is fly fishing. That is what keeps you coming back to the water. I may not have a photo, but I’ll always have that moment where it matters most.

Author’s note: I don’t have the fly either. I lost it in a tree on the next cast and was unable to retrieve it. That, in itself, is a longer story I plan on including in my next book, which will be a collection of bowhunting and fly fishing short stories. Until then, there are still copies of my current book “Life and Longbows” for sale on this site. You can get a personalized copy right here or you can order an unsigned copy on Amazon. A Kindle version will be available next Friday.