Hijacking Personal Tragedy

After indicating that he was paraphrasing Kansas City writer Jason Whitlock, NBC’s Bob Costas launched into a gun-control rant during halftime of Sunday Night Football last night. He didn’t infer anything. He came right out and said that if handguns didn’t exist, Kansas City Chiefs player Jovan Belcher and his girlfriend, Kasandra Perkins, would still be alive.

You probably know the story; Belcher apparently shot and killed his girlfriend Saturday morning, Dec. 1, then drove to the Chiefs practice facility and shot himself to death in front of his head coach and the team’s general manager. The young couple leaves behind a three-month-old daughter.

We should probably be getting used to the hijacking of personal tragedy in the name of serving political purposes and personal viewpoints, but the opposite is true for me. It gets harder to wipe the taste out of my mouth every time.

I am not saying this in order to shovel a path for a counter argument in defense of gun ownership and the Second Amendment. Rather, it is an appeal to Bob Costas, politicians on every side of every aisle, and government officials dizzy with self-importance. Every day of every year is a time for heartfelt response to personal tragedy. Our country is in dire need of decency, and, apparently, a commentary delay of much more than seven seconds.

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Blackened Pike for Lunch

Every time we sit down to eat fresh fish or game, I’m reminded how amazing everything we get when we go fishing or hunting tastes. Today for lunch, Jill and I had blackened northern pike cooked on a cast iron skillet in the garage.

It tastes so good it makes me feel like going fishing again right now to catch a couple more for tomorrow. Last week, while riding with Kolt Ringer of Foley Belsaw Outdoors, on the way down to Branson for the Association of Great Lakes Outdoor Writers (AGLOW) conference, we were talking about the trends that have come and gone when it comes to keeping and eating fish. I remember well that you kept whatever fish you wanted, when I was a kid. Then along came an enlightened period when we realized “the catches are not endless,” in the words of angling legend Ron Lindner, and we all started talking about catch and release.

The ‘release camp’ got so enthusiastic about the cause that some of us had to start keeping quiet about still keeping fish to eat. I remember being happy when Ron and Al Lindner and the In-Fisherman staff coined the term ‘Selective Harvest,’ a concept that proposed we can keep certain size fish without worrying about the populations as a whole, but that we should be releasing the prime spawning fish in an effort to help fisheries remain self-sustaining. Doug Stange, and others, have written about this now for many years, adding also that many waters are stocked with fish in order so that people can catch and keep them, known as put-and-take fisheries.

When you kill something on a hunting trip, you’re in for another real treat when you cook up what you got. This is a huge part of the tradition of fishing and hunting, something that we will be working on at the School of Outdoor Sports as we continue to develop lessons in our virtual classroom. In the meantime, here’s to a great fall for everybody, full of hunting and fishing and amazing meals made from what you catch up with.

Northern pike cooking rapidly on white-hot cast iron skillet.(Thanks to Rick Wood for teaching me how to do blackened fish, and to Mike Walsh for working on recipes that he’ll be showing us on the SOS site in the coming years.)

Rusty Flies

Mark Strand teaches himself how to cast to stream trout, after nearly 20 years away from the sport.Breckenridge, Colorado – It was never intended to be a retirement, but my life drifted away from fly fishing about twenty years ago, largely because I have owned a string of boats and I love fishing for muskies and northern pike and bass and walleyes and crappies and other fish that live in lakes. And partly because I don’t live in the American West, surrounded by trout streams. There was a time when trout fishing in rivers dictated where I lived, what I spent my meager disposable income on, and I was on that moving water whenever there was nothing more pressing to do.

To support the notion that this was not a retirement, I had continued to acquire fly-fishing gear through the years, knowing that any day could be the day I went again. So when our friends Fred and Gerri Ann moved to the Denver area, we rekindled the talk of driving out West – something I had been promising Jill since the day we met, something that was so overdue as to be almost tragic, given the importance of Montana and Wyoming to my early adulthood. These were the places I had lived after college graduation, working for small-town newspapers and fishing my brains out at every river that looked promising.

After setting a departure date, modern life being what it is, I wound up carving out about two hours to go through my fishing stuff. The original plan was to get everything set up and take a day and go fishing on the Kinnikinic or perhaps in the Whitewater area of southeastern Minnesota, to remember how to cast, make sure the waders didn’t leak, and find out what else I needed in the way of leaders, tippet material, fly floatant, stuff like that.

No such luxury, as it turned out, and the stuff got packed into the truck without being field tested for current performance. Over the years, I had bought new waders, wading shoes, vest, one rod that had never been rigged up, and more. What a picture this was going to be, an old guy with brand new gear that was actually 20 years old, trying to catch fish with eroded skills.

You have to start someplace, even if you’ve been there before.

When I got out to Colorado, in between all the other things we did to make it a family vacation, I stole away for several hours on several days and reconnected with the way a river wraps you in its pace and peaceful clarity, until you feel like you’re breathing the water and the air, and an hour goes by before you look up and remember you’re in the mountains and should look up more often. My ability to read the water and cast where I was aiming was as rusty as the hooks on my old flies. At one point, I got four takes in about ten minutes on a small ‘Kinni nymph’ as we call it, before thinking to check it. Sure enough, there was no hook! It either dissolved in the water like a sugar cube or fell apart on the first hookset, leaving me with nothing more than a bundle of drab brown dubbing material on a metal shaft.

I couldn’t recognize rise forms, and I sure as heck couldn’t see to tie on flies without the 3x cheaters taking up one vest pocket. My hands were shaking so much that even when I could see the eyelet it was a major challenge to put the tippet through it. But man, it was fun, and in time I recovered the ability to spot silvery sides shimmering well below the surface as nymphing fish were eating in a deep, slow outside bend.

Too many sporting options, and way too little time to pursue them. In some ways, you’re either in or out when it comes to fly fishing for trout, and at this point I’m wanting back in. So hopefully, you’ll hear more from me on this subject in the coming years. This sport has so much to give. There’s a way of walking and looking and staying low and mentally checking the current speeds across the river to see how far out you can cast and be able to mend and stand a chance.

One of the main things I was reminded of out in Colorado is that trout don’t hate you for casting badly. They just don’t buy what you’re clumsily trying to sell them.

Jason Mitchell Outdoors Tells the SOS Story on Turkey Hunt

In this episode of Jason Mitchell Outdoors Television, Mark Strand, Founder of the nonprofit School of Outdoor Sports tells the SOS story during a turkey hunt on the Dakota prairies with SOS IT chief Larry Chrisman.
It was a great opportunity to get the School some much-needed exposure. Thanks, Jason!

Price Points and Bad Equipment

I’m about done being patient and understanding about junky gear that impacts the experiences of newcomers to hunting and fishing. The whole concept of price points and perceived thresholds of spending pain is based on business principles that don’t fit with outdoor sports. This past week, I watched on numerous occasions as spincast reels failed to perform under the stress of fighting medium-sized fish.

I realize that spincast reels are not thought of as top-of-the-line equipment, but they can be a useful tool for inexperienced casters, especially on windy days. There’s no reason they can’t be made with quality components and built so that they actually work. Unless a spincast reel can be equipped with a drag that is at least adequately reliable, and a switch that lets the handle spin backwards when you want it to, it simply should not be sold.

In this specific case, the reels in question are about three years old, have been well maintained, and had new, strong line on them. But no matter how much fine-tuning went into the efforts, it was impossible to set the drag and have it remain set where you left it. Or worse yet, one little click would take the drag from too light to completely locked up. You’d have to finesse the setting wheel in an attempt to get the drag set properly, and many times there was no such thing even after multiple tries.

In way too many cases, a nice fish would eat the lure, the drag would lock up, the rod would be bending into the water, and we’d be scrambling to try to flip the little switch that would let the handle spin backwards. In such situations with such reels, you should be able to allow the handle to spin and manually create your own drag using resistance from the palm of your hand, the way fly anglers often do. These switches were made of plastic, and they do not do what they are supposed to do.

It was not practical to leave the switch flipped while fishing, because the reel would produce an annoying clicking sound with every turn while reeling in the lure. When we’d try to flip the switch and it wouldn’t go, a last-ditch effort was made by pushing in on the button to let line go out. The result, on too many occasions, was line breaking or slack being created that allowed the fish to get off.

What I’m saying is that equipment used for catching fish has to be able to catch fish, and that any other consideration, such as “we need to sell this for $29.99” is an obstacle to enthusiastic beginners and their quest for success.

The guilt in this department is not confined to fishing equipment, either. Plenty of pieces of hunting gear, including boots, vests, pants, and more are simply pieces of junk that should never be made and sold. In the traditional outdoor sports, the marketplace should be ruled by a higher standard of quality than what is evident today.

What is Good Writing?

Concepts relating to creativity are sometimes slippery, hard to define. It can be difficult to strike off on a mission to become a ‘better writer’ when there really isn’t a definition of what that means.

In essence, to me, good writing can be broadly defined as words that create images in readers’ minds and captivate them. To go even further, one of my own measures of writing quality is what happens when I reach the end of something I’m reading. If I feel listless and can detect a vague sadness that the story is over, and can tell that I’m wondering where to look to find something else like it, the quality was beyond good. That doesn’t happen often enough.

Every once in a while, you come across something that helps wrap your arms around the creative process, slippery as it remains. The other day, while reading a piece online about the evolution of self publishing, there was a link to a commencement address by Neil Gaiman, given recently at the University of the Arts. It’s titled, “Make Good Art,” and even though it’s about 20 minutes long, if you are interested in working as a writer, photographer, videographer – or in virtually any facet of the arts – it’s worth carving out the time to watch it.

He addresses writing more than other pursuits, and one passage having to do with voice really struck a chord with me, given that I believe development of a signature voice is the brass ring writers should reach for…

“The urge, starting out, is to copy, and that’s not a bad thing; most of us only find our own voices after we’ve sounded like a lot of other people. But the one thing that you have, that nobody else has, is you. Your voice, your mind, your story, your vision. So write as only you can.”

Here is the link to the video: http://vimeo.com/42372767