Friday, October 31, 2008

Waiting for walleyes

I just returned from my annual October fishing trip on Lake of the Woods with my friend, Pete Wolney. It was our fifth straight year trying to take advantage of the annual migration of walleyes from the lake into the Rainy River.

We have done well the previous four years, always taking home our limit of walleyes. We were optimistic as we prepared to leave Sunday afternoon to fish all day Monday and Tuesday and then wrap up fishing by about 10:30 a.m. on Wednesday.

But, our hopes were dashed when a wicked cold front blew in on Sunday, with plummeting temperatures and howling winds. The cold and high winds continued on Monday, as we hit the water for our first day of fishing.

Not surprisingly, the fish were not biting. We caught only one small sauger and a keeper walleye of 17 inches. In previous years, we have landed more fish than that in an hour. Needless to say, we were discouraged and even thought about coming home early, like the next day if the slow action continued.

Leaving early is not something we ever had even considered the first four years. But, we did not want to sit out in the cold for hours and catch no fish. We decided to get up early and fish in the river right out in front of Adrian's Resort where we were staying. We had done well there in previous years and were hoping the weather and the fishing would improve.

And, that's exactly what happened. Within an hour, I landed a beautiful 21-inch walleye on a jig and a minnow. It had to be released because it fell within the protected slot of 19 1/2 to 28 inches. But, that didn't matter. We finally started catching fish. The action wasn't fast and the fish were biting light, but we still managed to get a two-man limit of eight walleyes by the end of the day.

We also experienced an amazing thrill in the afternoon, when Pete set the hook on a nice fish that he thought was a big walleye. As it continued to peel line off of his reel, I realized he had something bigger than a walleye. I thought it was a big northern, which are plentiful in this lake.

It turned out to be a monster sturgeon. It came up from the bottom and started coming up to the surface near the boat. Then, it flew out of the water right next to the boat and dove down again. As exciting as it was, Pete didn't want to fight it for 45 minutes to an hour, so he cut the line so he could keep fishing for walleyes.

I will never forget the image of that sturgeon going airborne next to the boat. We kept fishing that spot and caught a few nice walleyes before heading back to the river.

I should say, Pete caught some more walleyes. For some reason, he had the hot hand that day. He caught all but two of the keepers and landed a nice 24-incher that we released. Meanwhile, I was getting lessons in patience and humility that I wasn't all that interested in learning. My attitude soured for a while as I struggled with my lack of fish catching.

Then, strangely, the tables turned on our final morning, as I caught a beautiful 24-inch walleye within the first hour on the river in front of Adrian's. Pete added two 18-inchers, then we headed down river toward Four-Mile Bay and a nice spot where we always seemed to catch fish.

We anchored and I proceeded to catch about eight to 10 nice keepers, while Pete managed only one or two small fish. It was his turn to experience frustration, but he handled it much better than I had the day before. In fact, he said several times that he was really glad I started to catch fish. Maybe, he wanted to avoid a six-hour drive home with a frustrated fisherman.

That's the funny thing about these trips -- often, we take turns getting hot and catching most of the fish. Not sure why that is. We use the same jigs with the same minnows as bait. Perhaps, our jigging styles are just different enough that one will sometimes work better than the other.

The good part is, we always manage to take home our limit of walleyes. That goal was more important this year. I'm planning on taking my fish out west to Great Falls, Montana, where my first wife's parents live. Our whole family is going out over Thanksgiving week to spend time with my mother-in-law (Sharon Guditis) and father-in-law (Bob Guditis). I still call them my in-laws even though my first wife, Jennifer, is no longer living.

We will be going on an elk and mule deer hunt with Grandpa Bob on 150 acres of hunting land he owns about an hour away from Great Falls. Bob and Sharon both enjoy walleye and I'm glad to be able to have a fish fry for them. After all they do for us, it's nice to be able to do something small in return. I know we'll have a great time with them and I'm optimistic that we'll see animals on our hunt.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

An inspiring story

This morning, I read a great deer hunting story in a magazine I subscribe to called North American Hunter. The tale ends with a young man shooting a trophy buck, but that's not what had me inspired when I finished reading.

Jake Beckstrom suffered a tragic diving accident in 2005 that left him parazlyzed all the way up to his shoulders. Thanks to supportive family and friends, he was able to enjoy a whitetail deer hunt last year in Wisconsin using a special box blind and a shooting device to fire his crossbow.

In the story, Jake recounted the many weeks and months of physical therapy to help regain the use of his arms and hands. It was exhausting, but he was determined to do everything he could to be able to hunt again.

I'm not sure how many of us would work that hard just to be able to get out in the field and hunt out of a wheelchair. Of course, Jake had no other choice, but I'm impressed that, instead of falling into self pity, he channeled all of his energy into making the most of his limited mobility.

I don't know why God allows people like Jake to suffer such tragic misfortunes. If we're honest with ourselves, we realize we all have made mistakes that could have put us in the same situation as Jake. That we have been spared such an immense challenge should cause us to be grateful for God's mercy.

It also should motivate us to help people like Jake. I have a friend who loves to hunt and has taken men with disabilities out into the field. He has gone as far as Africa to give them premium opportunities. He just got back from a moose hunt in Canada with a man who has a mental disability. They didn't get a moose, but the man enjoyed the experience nonetheless.

At various times, I fantasize about what kinds of outdoor adventures I'd like to pursue -- moose hunting in Alaska, bass fishing in Mexico, turkey hunting in Iowa. Perhaps, my dream should be going out into the woods with someone like Jake.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Boat hibernation

With a touch of sadness, I put my fishing boat in storage on Friday. My co-worker at The Catholic Spirit, Jim Graham, lives out in the country and offered his barn for storage. I quickly agreed and he picked up the boat after he got off of work on Friday.

To ensure proper winterizing, I contacted Hannay's Marine in northeast Minneapolis for some tips. I was glad to find out that the marina offers a tip sheet for winterizing, along with the necessary products. The good news is, I didn't have to spend much to get what I needed.

Here's a summary of the important tips for every boat owner:

1. Batteries. Make sure you fully charge all of your marine batteries and disconnect the wires. As I learned from the company that manufactures the batteries I own, Northern, it's best to store batteries that are fully charged and to keep them outside in the cold. One of the principal people in the company assured me that batteries stored in this manner will be ready to go in the spring and not lose their charge. They also will last longer.

2. Outboard motor. The key here is to put fuel stabilizer (Stabil) in your gas tank and run the motor with this fuel for about 10 minutes. This ensures that the old gas is run out of the engine and is replaced by the stabilized fuel, which won't turn to varnish and corrode or gum up engine parts. Also, near the end, remove the engine casing and spray the carbuerators with a fogging fluid (Engine Stor).

3. Gear lube. The last step is to replace the gear lube, which is located on the lower unit. Hannay's recommends doing this once a year, preferably in the fall. First, you remove both screws and drain out the old fluid. Then, you pump the new fluid in and pump until it comes out of the top screw. You'll put in about 2/3 to 3/4 of a quart. In the process, you'll also flush out any water that got in.

I did all of these things the day before Jim picked up my boat and it only took about an hour. It was time well spent. I now have peace of mind about the condition of my boat for storage. I look forward to another fishing season with the boat next year.

This was a great year and my best ever for bass, in terms of size. I caught the biggest bass of my life, at 5 pounds, 11 ounces. Plus, I caught three others weighing more than 5 pounds and my two oldest boys, Joe and Andy, each caught one over 5. That makes 6 total over 5 pounds. There were two others that went about 4 3/4, and several more in the 4-pound range.

I will carry the memories of these big fish through the winter. But, I'm not done fishing just yet. My friend, Pete Wolney, and I are going up to Lake of the Woods next week for one last fishing trip.

It's an annual event for us and we fish the Rainy River during the annual migration of walleyes from the lake into the river. Shiner minnows come into the river every fall by the thousands and the walleyes follow. It's happening later this year, but both walleyes and shiners have started to come up river. So, next week should be good.

This is a great time to catch walleyes of all sizes, including big ones in the 8- to 10-pound range.
I talked to a guy earlier this summer who lives up there and fishes the lake throughout the year. He says the lake is producing more and more big walleyes and he thinks the slot limit imposed several years ago is making a difference. You have to release all walleyes between 19 1/2 and 28 inches, which, naturally, has led to an increased number of fish in that size range. We noticed that last year and hope it will be true again this year. Also, there are plenty of fish under 19 1/2 inches, which means we should catch plenty of fish for the frying pan. Can't wait for a meal of fresh walleye!

Friday, October 17, 2008

Fall turkey harvest

I enjoyed a beautiful fall day near Red Wing yesterday afternoon. I spent the morning getting my fishing boat ready for storage, then headed southeast with my two oldest boys, Joe and Andy.

I dropped them off at a farm that Joe will be hunting for deer on the Nov. 8 firearms opener. They would spend the afternoon scouting, while I went to another farm nearby to try for a wild turkey. I got there about 4 p.m. and prepared to enjoy a crisp, colorful autumn afternoon.

Fall turkey hunting is significantly different than spring hunting and, in my view, much harder. Rather than being spread out like they are in the spring, fall birds often gather and move in big flocks, which means they can be harder to locate.

But, I was optimistic I would encounter birds, even though I would only be out in the woods for the last two hours of the day. The place where I was headed was a spot I hunt for deer every November.

I always see turkeys while in my stand during the last hour of daylight. They walk by and then fly up into trees to roost for the night. There are a lot of big oak trees in this spot, which offer both food (acorns) and large branches for roosting.

I climbed into the stand and decided to sit there until dusk, when legal shooting hours end. I did some occasional calling and heard lots of squirrels dashing about in the newly-fallen leaves.

Then, around 5:30, I looked east of the stand and spotted a red head glowing in the late-afternoon sunlight. Another bird was right behind it -- two big toms at about 60 yards or so. They were out of range and wouldn't come any closer. They disappeared behind some trees and continued their journey away from the stand.

In the spring, I could have tried calling these birds in with some seductive hen calls, but that doesn't work nearly as well in the fall. You can appeal to their flocking instincts and try to get them to join the group, but that works far better with hens and their young than it does with toms.

Oh well. It was fun just to see them and it got me to thinking about coming back in the spring to try for these gobblers.

I continued calling every 10-15 minutes, in the hope that these two gobblers might change their minds, or that some other birds might want to come in. But, the woods fell silent.

As the sun neared the horizon, I checked my watch, which read 5:55. There wasn't much time left, but I figured birds might come in to roost. Sure enough, a few minutes later, I heard some rustling to the east of my stand and caught some movement. A hen was walking westward and would eventually get even with my stand.

Problem was, its route of travel would not bring it within 40 yards, which is generally considered to be the maximum effective range of most shotguns. But, I decided I would try taking the shot. If this was the route the birds were taking to the roost -- and I was pretty sure it was -- this was as close a shot as I would get.

The bird disappeared behind some branches and leaves and I got my gun ready and looked to the next opening. In a few moments, the bird appeared, then stopped next to a tree and ran her head up, as turkeys often do.

Initially, I was going to wait for her to get past the tree, but, because she was standing so still and her entire neck and head were visible, I decided now was the time to shoot.

I pulled the trigger, half expecting the bird to run off unscathed. To my surprise, the bird went down and started flapping, as turkeys often do after they're shot. It didn't get up and I walked over to claim my prize.

It was a beautiful hen, which is legal in the fall but not in the spring. I prefer to take the hens in the fall and leave the toms for the spring. However, had the other two toms been closer, I definitely would have taken one of them. As it was, I was happy to take home this bird. It's my first fall turkey. I have come close on other occasions, but couldn't connect.

Here's the amazing part of this hunt -- I paced off my shot distance at 55 yards. Had I known it was this far, I might not have taken the shot. Yet, I had made a clean kill shot at 40 yards in the spring and had patterned the gun at 40 yards at the shooting range and found the pattern to be tight.

I was confident the gun could probably kill a bird beyond 40 yards, but was amazed it did such a great job at 55 yards. This does wonders for my confidence with this gun. It also helps me realize that I can push the limits of shooting distance if I need to.

It also makes me very glad I did some more experimenting with chokes and different types of shotgun ammo back in April. I settled on a choke made by a company called Comp-N-Choke. Not only does this company make excellent chokes, the staff has done extensive testing on different guns to determine which of its chokes works best with the various brands and models.

I called the company to help find the right choke for my Remington 1187 shotgun and got transfered directly to the company president, who made his recommendation. I was very impressed with the fact that I got connected all the way to the top. I ordered the choke and tried it out with the shell the president recommended -- Winchester Supreme High Velocity 3-inch magnums. They shoot beautifully in my gun.

This is, by far, the best choke and ammo combination I have ever used. I'm convinced I could not have killed this bird with any previous choke or ammo that I have tried. I'm glad I took the time to do some more experimenting.

I've got one more fall turkey tag to fill this fall -- in Wisconsin. The season there runs until Nov. 20. I'd like to get out after the corn is harvested. The birds are much easier to find then, as they love to feed in picked corn fields. I hope to be sitting along the edge of one when they do.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Wisconsin whitetails

My son, Andy, was excited about the youth deer hunt in Wisconsin over the weekend. He was looking for his first deer and hoped it would come Saturday or Sunday.

We opened the weekend on a nice piece of land near Somerset owned by Buzz Kriesel, a parishioner of St. Michael in Stillwater. Joining us were Mark Druffner of Hudson, who also belongs to St. Michael, and his two oldest sons, Jake and Julian. Jake is Andy's classmate in 10th grade at Trinity School in Eagan.

Buzz had three spots set up for us. Andy and I took a two-man ladder stand in a cow pasture where deer like to cross. Jake and Julian hunted in ground blinds in the woods. I had planned to take my shotgun in case we saw any wild turkeys, but I forgot to take it out of the van. That would prove costly.

None of us saw any deer Saturday morning, but a flock of turkeys showed up about 10 a.m. and entered the cow pasture about 100-125 yards away. I called to them just to see what they would do. They all looked, then continued going through the pasture.

Surprisingly, within a few minutes, they turned and started walking right toward us. I got upset that I didn't bring my shotgun. It looked like they were going to come right to us. So, I climbed down the stand and ran toward them to try to break up the flock. If you do this, you can sit down and call them back in.

I was amazed that they didn't spook as I climbed down. Even more amazing, they stood there as I started running at them. I'll bet I got to within 25 yards before they all flew off. Sure enough, some of them flew in a different direction.

I got my shotgun, went into the woods and started calling. Immediately, some responded. After a few minutes, I heard a gunshot in the woods. They had flown right over to Jake and Mark, and Mark shot one. I was glad somebody was able to get one.

Later in the afternoon, we went to a farm near Prescott that has both alfalfa and soybeans. The person renting the land was harvesting soybeans when we arrived, but was done soon after we sat down in the woods. Also, the landowner's son had a group at one end of the farm that was shooting trap.

We told him we were going over to the other end, then headed over to an area I had scouted in the spring. At the corner of the property, there was a trail leading into the alfalfa from the neighbor's land, which had a tall grass field on the border. I knew deer would be using this trail, so Andy and I set up across the corner about 40 yards away.

Sure enough, a doe appeared about 20-30 minutes after we sat down. I had fallen asleep and saw the deer when I woke up. I was a few yards behind Andy in some cover. Meanwhile, Andy didn't see the deer until it was in the field and found himself locked in a staredown with the doe.

He stayed still as the deer continued to look at him. Then, it took a step toward the alfalfa and stopped again. Andy started to raise his gun, then the deer got nervous and turned to go back the way it came. Andy then mounted his gun, aimed at the deer's shoulder and fired. It went down, but was still alive. Andy got up, went over and took a finishing shot.

We pulled the deer back over to where we were sitting and laid it down in some brush. Then, we sat back down and waited to see if more deer would show up. Nothing came out near any of us, so I started field dressing the deer, while Mark went and got his truck.

We hastened the process when we saw an approaching thunderstorm. Within about 10 or 15 minutes of leaving the property, it started pouring. But, the storm passed quickly.

We were able to register the deer and drop it off for processing in Prescott. One thing I like about Wisconsin is that there are plenty of registration stations and deer processing facilities. We never seem to have trouble finding them, even when we don't know where they are. I should have researched this ahead of time, but Mark made a few calls on his cell phone and we found what we needed.

All in all, it was a great hunt. There is something special about your first whitetail and Andy was thrilled to harvest this nice doe, which was full of alfalfa and will provide some good eating. On Sunday, we followed our tradition of grilling the tenderloins. They were delicious. Can't wait to get the rest of the deer back.

This is the beginning of the hunting season for us. We have the Minnesota firearms deer opener Nov. 8, then it's on to Montana for an elk and mule deer hunt in late November over Thanksgiving weekend. Stay tuned!

Thursday, October 9, 2008

What's the Buzz?

This weekend, I get to visit one of the good friends I have made in my job at The Catholic Spirit. His name is Buzz Kriesel and he's an avid outdoorsman who lives in Wisconsin and belongs to St. Michael in Stillwater.

He and his wife, Jeannine, have a beautiful piece of land near the St. Croix River and I had the privilege of deer hunting there several years ago. I was fortunate to harvest my first Wisconsin deer there and, this weekend, my son, Andy, will have the same opportunity. Buzz has extended the invitation for Andy, his friend, Jake Druffner, and his brother, Julian, to hunt there during Wisconsin's youth deer hunting weekend Saturday and Sunday.

I'm excited to have the chance to witness Andy try for his first whitetail deer. He has had several close calls over the last three years and I'm hoping this will be the year he finally succeeds. We've had some memorable moments in the deer stand together and I cherish every opportunity we can spend in the field.

Thanks to generous landowners like Buzz, we'll be able to make more memories this weekend. Buzz is a great host and a great hunter and I truly thank God for his friendship and generosity. I know we'll have fun no matter the outcome.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Last bass of the year

I made what is likely my last bass outing of the season yesterday on the Minneapolis city lakes. It was a beautiful fall day -- about as good as it gets. My friend, Mark Lauer, joined me for what has become an annual fall event for the two of us.

I have struggled to catch fish in the fall, despite what I often read about it being a great time to catch fish, especially big ones. This time was no different -- that is, until about the last hour. Despite catching only one small bass and having a couple of muskies bite off our lures, we hung in there until later in the afternoon.

First, I caught a 19-inch bass that weighed 3 pounds, 12 ounces. Then, Mark caught one weighing 2 pounds, 11 ounces. We decided to head back to the landing and were going to stop at one last spot before calling it quits. At that spot, I caught a 20-inch bass that weighed 4 pounds, 11 ounces.

Once I landed the fish and had Mark take a few pictures, I put down the rod and we headed back to shore. It was a great way to end the season. Now, it's on to hunting. I'm going shooting with my son, Andy, this afternoon to get him ready for the Wisconsin youth deer hunt next weekend. If all goes well, he will harvest his first whitetail.

I'm praying God will bless him with that gift. There's something special about your first deer, regardless of whether it's a big buck or a small doe. I will always remember mine and will cherish that memory for the rest of my life.