Strange are the passions of humans in how they come and go.
As a kid, I was a fishing nut. Couldn’t get enough. Almost every summer day, there was fishing somewhere. We rode bikes from town out to a Crow Wing River bridge to try to hook redhorse suckers, the occasional rock bass, or the rare walleye that moved into a hole beside a midspan pier.
After we grew big enough to wade the river, we were up and down it chasing the northern pike that hung out under snags and behind stumps. When my parents took us kids to visits friends and family at “the lake,” of which there were several, they had to drag me off the dock to get me into the car to go home.
By high school age, a night of too late, summer partying would regularly end with my heading home to pick up my younger brother at 5 a.m. or earlier to head off to plug for largemouth bass on the slough that connected Lake Alexander to Fish Trap Lake.
Nothing could quite match the excitement of a big bass swirling after a frog-popper pulled off the grass above the undercut banks.
The passion only grew upon arrival in Alaska, a place home to fish bigger than anything imaginable to a kid growing up in the Midwest where a 10-pound pike was a monster. Over the years that followed, halibut 10-times that size or more were brought to boat along with king salmon five times as big and bigger.
The fishing passion grew to include fly-tying and rod building and then somewhere after tens of thousands of fish, it just sort of faded away. Don’t get me wrong. I still enjoy fishing, but it’s not a passion anymore.
Our freezer gets stocked with salmon caught in uniquely Alaskan dipnet fisheries, and then I might or might not grab a rod-and-reel to fish a few times in summer. Usually it is to tag along with friends or to teach someone else how to catch salmon on a streamer or maybe to float a dry fly for rainbow trout or grayling because there is still that pleasure in watching a fish rise to the take.
Truth be told, however, I didn’t wet a line this summer.
On the other hand, some passions never fade.
Learning was always one. Journalism attracted me back in the days when it was deeper than it usually is now because there were opportunities to learn about many things, including the ignorance of journalists.
Upon digging down into the substance of issues, it was often interesting to find how susceptible we all are to what we want to believe. Businesses, interest groups and government all use that reality to play journalists like fish.
I was blessed in those days with the job of outdoor editor at Anchorage Daily News which allowed me to spend my summers fishing, hiking and biking; my falls hunting and my winters probing deeper subjects from wolf control to global warming to canine performance to a crime here and there.
The digging around in other people’s research (this is what learning is) to learn new things is still a pleasure, and in that regard the internet has been a Godsend. Yes, it moves a lot of garbage through the tubes on a daily basis, but it also provides access to a lot of well-thought-out, well-conducted research.
It is good for one’s mental side, and for the physical, well, there is the marsh and the waterfowling.
Where exactly the passion for wingshooting arose is lost to memory, but it arrived not that long after the fishing began, and it never faded. It started with pheasants, though I never shot that many thanks to my father.
We hunted behind a Brittany spaniel named Freckles, a pointing dog who all too often pointed skunks, which is another story in and of my self. The problem with hunting with my long-dead father was, to put this politely, his quick finger on teh trigger.
The memories of pheasant hunting are of Freckles locking up on point; my father saying, “OK, you take this one;” my stepping in to flush the pheasant; a big, old rooster cackling into the sky; my pulling back the hammer on the single-shot shotgun as it came to my shoulder; and then the “boom” that coincided with the pheasant crumpling in the air and arcing toward the ground.
The apology that followed was always the same, too: “Sorry. I couldn’t wait all day. The bird was getting out of range.”
Live and learn
Hunting ruffed grouse with high-school friends in the years that followed improved my reaction time, though we cheated and shot a lot of them on the ground along logging roads.
The first one actually knocked out of the sky after a lot of misses came as something of a surprise, but after that everything got easier. There’s something magical about knowing that you can do something.
It was like the first time breaking three hours in the marathon after several miserable and painful failures. Once the barrier was breached, the several sub-three hour marathons that followed really didn’t seem that hard.
Running was another of those passions that came on hard, burned intensely and then just sort of faded away. In my 40s, I was confident sub-three hour marathons would be perfectly doable in my 50s. The engine was certainly big enough; it was just a matter of keeping the weight within reason.
But as 50 approached, the necessary long runs became less appealing, the necessary speed work even more so, and I went back to enjoying food and a couple of beers just a little too much.
I still run now and then to stay in shape although far more time is spent on the bike to save the body from pounding. It’s been a long time since I’ve given a thought to running a race, which is what people passionate about running do.
The challenge isn’t just in finishing. Anyone can run a race of some distance. Racing almost any distance is a different matter. The idea of racing is to go as fast as you can, to push beyond into that world where you test the limits of your body.
The racing died along with the motivation to do the training necessary make that push possible, but I can still happily edge toward exhaustion following a good dog around in a swamp.
Freckles wasn’t much of a water dog. Tom – a springer spaniel-Labrador cross named for a high school football buddy, however, loved the water. He was the one who led me out of the grouse cover into the wetlands where the somewhat boring sport of shooting ducks over decoys became something else.
Never one good at sitting still (my inability to stay in deer stand for hours on end always irritated my father), I took immediately to the bog-slogging, sweaty work of following a dog around in the marsh in order to shoot waterfowl like upland birds, and that passion has never moderated.
Man vs. dog
At its peak – when seriously running and in tiptop condition – we had to keep at least two Labrador retrievers in the house because they’d get worked to the limit in a day in the field. I’d bring home one tongue-dragging dog, clean a limit of ducks, and be in the marsh with another dog the next day.
I can still remember Arlo, a coal-black phenom, struggling to get up from his bed unhappy that his brother, Magic, was headed for the truck. Magic was a good, solid working dog.
Arlo was something else. One year he caught as many ducks in the first week of the season as we shot – unfledged ducks, ducks with deformed wings, ducks other hunters had crippled. I watched that dog scent-track cripples across open water and dive for ducks that dove. He was the only retriever I’ve ever owned who did that.
Hunting the swamps near the confluence of the Yentna and Susitna rivers one year, a friend and I lost Arlo after we knocked a mallard down crippled. We eventually found him half a mile away digging the duck out from under the roots of a huge cottonwood tree.
In his latter years, he figured out that our primary target was mallards and basically gave up pursuing anything else. He’d retrieve widgeon, scaup, teal or pintails when told to do so, but when he went birdy in the flooded grass it meant he was tracking mallards somewhere in the cover.
The dogs that followed all had their own personalities. Bailey should have been a seal. She was happier in the water than on land. Hoss – the one giant puppy fathered by Arlo and raised not so happily by Bailey – was as hard working as he was easy going.
All of them got plenty of exercise and lived into their mid-teens. Most of them were still at work in the marsh while senior citizens. Hoss in his seniors years mentored Lars who seems still a puppy though he’s now age seven and a master of the game.
We were at it in the howling wind and rain on Saturday. The weather sucked in that wonderful way that only waterfowlers can appreciate. The high tides of fall, and heavy October rains had pushed a foot of water into places that were dry when the season opened. The walking was tough in grass flooded knee-deep and ponds threatening to go over the top of waist-high waders.
There was also a bounty of mallards with the drakes now in vivid in color – the drab, brown eclipse plumage of fall transformed into dark, iridescent-green heads, bright yellow bills, gray bodies and wings with white-bordered, blue patches that flashed when ducks flushed.
My shooting was not great, but it was good enough. I admit to whining to Lars about the weight of the load of ducks in the pack halfway through our hunt. Time takes its toll on all of us. Old dogs can’t run with young dogs. We were both done by the time we made it back to the car.
I confess to being happy to pluck ducks on Sunday rather than head out again. Lars spent the day zonked out on a big, cushy pad. He moved a little stiffly every time he got up. Between the water and the grasses bent by the wind and tangled, he’d had to do a lot of bounding to get around, but he did his work well.
When a green-head tumbled into shoulder high grass and near-impenetrable sweet gale with no reference points to mark where it went down, I thought we might have trouble finding it, but Lars circled downwind, disappeared for a while and obviously picked up the scent.
Duck in mouth, he found me in terrain where it was impossible for me to see him. He was happy to make the retrieve. Our passion here is clearly shared.
He was ready to go again today. I was ready, too, but humans sometimes have responsibilities along with passions, and there were chores needing to be done. Lars was not happy.