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.

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.

Fishing for Memories

Sometimes the water is so clear that it looks like you and the fish are part of the same world, which you are. Fishing can become a stabilizing force through all the changes in your life. No matter what, if you like to fish, there’s always something to look forward to.

It was a Sunday morning, about 8 o’clock, in midsummer. I’d driven all night to get where I was, not to fish, but to interview for a job. Harry and I sat and talked for two hours in a little cafe, one of those places with petrified lemon meringue pie and coffee capable of brain damage.

Now after the interview, I was on a different mission.

Traveling sort of east and sort of southeast on a winding gravel road (I can still feel the stiff manual steering on that Chevy pickup, dulled down from its halcyon days as school-bus orange), right into a blinding sun, behind me a rooster tail of light gray dust billowing, then filtering away in the Wyoming wind.

About 10 miles out of Lonetree, I pulled over where Harry told me to, when I’d asked, right in the middle of the interview, where a guy could find some trout water in this local area. Prairie grasslands as far as you could see in one direction, baby mountains in the other. I had just been graduated from the University of Minnesota journalism school, and because I was a trout fishing fanatic, had done the unthinkable in the minds of my Minneapolis classmates: I’d sent resumes to every podunk newspaper in every podunk town in the Rockies, letting them know I’d be making a personal visit sometime in early summer, to see about any openings in their newsroom.

After working my way through Montana without any bites (unless you count trout), I was faced with an offer from Harry at a weekly paper in Mountain View, Wyoming. Wanted me to handle their sports and a little town council, which I could do with my casting hand tied behind my back.

Before I said yes, though, I had to have a look around.

I pulled over and got out of the truck and for the millionth time tried to straighten the burnt orange, plaid seat cover. It sure had looked good in the Sears catalog.

I put on my old hockey jacket and hiked over the hill. There was supposed to be a trout stream that flowed down in this meadow, below the row of hills that hid it from the gravel road. Sure enough, there it was, over the second rise, gently flowing crystal clear water, a long stretch of transparent riffles that tailed off into a deep, dark pool, bending away from me into the waving grass. I sneaked in a crouched position (a move taught by my father during childhood trips, that had long since become natural), slowly and smoothly, to a vantage point on a side hill. I eased myself down onto the brittle grass.

Not much happening in the stream, but I had plenty of time.

After who knows how long, a flicker of something caught my attention, down and to the left. Moving out from the sanctuary of an undercut bank, an enormous brown trout, probably three pounds or more – bigger than any I’d ever seen, much less caught – was taking up a feeding station.

With almost no effort, the grand fish held in the first available current lane, from where it could disappear back under the bank with one pump of its broad tail. As long as I didn’t move, the fish would surely stay there, and I could watch it. Whenever a food item would come into the fish’s view, I knew by how the body would tense up in preparation. With a focus bent on survival, the trout’s body would rise and tip to meet the hapless insect, sucking it in with a sound so loud it made me jump the first time. What was it feeding on? I couldn’t see anything coming down the current, or any hatch of adult insects swarming above the water.

But I took it as a sign, and decided to take the job.

It was sunny and windy and Sunday, and so inspiring that I didn’t even think about going to the truck for my rod. Besides, this fish was impossible to reach; unmatchable. To get where you could make a cast to it, the fish would see you for sure. There was no way. All I could do, and what I gladly settled for, was to sit and watch this trout carry on with its life.

A lot of us rearrange the fabric of our lives to allow fishing free access. We move closer to it, spend disposable income on it, daydream about it when it’s temporarily impossible to go without losing our job or damaging personal relationships. I’m not one of those people who can remember my first fishing trip, because I probably went fishing in a backpack, wearing cloth diapers, strapped to my father’s shoulders. I enjoyed going to my parents’ place and flipping through pictures of us holding up bass in the front yard, or baskets of sunfish.

I guess everybody goes fishing for different reasons, but my theory is that we all go through pretty much the same phases, and that fishing becomes a stabilizing force through junior high, high school, girlfriends, and other turmoil. In the eight months that I lived in the Bridger Valley of Wyoming, I caught a lot of trout, waist deep in freezing water, casting for hours by myself, after staying up all night to put the paper to bed on time.

As trauma and change rock your soul, as you’re struggling to get that job or get through college, no matter where you are you can always go fishing for something.

Sometimes, in the course of events, priorities do get foggy. I lost more than one girlfriend by going too often. Jack Ohman, a friend I met in college, used to say while we were walking into our favorite stretch of the Kinnikinic: “When I go fishing, all I think about is girls. But when I’m with my girlfriend, all I think about is fishing.”

So, I guess it comes down to a very simple struggle that rarely gets reconciled. We get fascinated with fishing, we become infatuated with it, then we get inexorably sucked into it, and we fight the rest of our lives to maintain balance between going fishing and honoring other, seemingly less compelling social obligations.

We all fish for our own reasons, and those reasons assume different positions of priority as the years roll by. We love seeing fish, and we learn to look around, and even to sit and watch ‘the show’ or watch other people fish for a while.

I remember big bluegills when they weren’t such a rare item, and carp on doughballs, and my brother Matt sitting out in an eight-foot rowboat all afternoon to catch a northern on a big sucker minnow. It was impossible to appreciate those times for what they were, because we were so young, and we never thought much about why we went fishing every day. We just did, because we lived on a lake and there was a dock off the end of the back yard.

Those days pressed fishing under the first layer of my skin. Then, I fell into the belly of the whale when my parents bought an island on Lake of the Woods when I was about 12. From that point on, we (two brothers, two sisters) grew up cruising the big lake, weaving in and out of islands until we knew the water and had muskies grab our little lures when we would have been excited over a two-pound smallmouth.

Thinking back, opportunity has everything to do with becoming fascinated with fishing, and I count my blessings that my parents took time to create them. Nowadays, I fish with about half the intensity I had in the old days, if that, but I love fishing as much as ever. I guess it’s up to you and me to hang on to this sport as we get older and our lives become more complicated. I don’t know what works for you, but it helps me to go fishing for memories.

When I was a kid, I liked to sleep on a cot set out on the floating portion of the dock at our cabin on Lake of the Woods, rocking with the water and listening to loons and glimpsing falling stars that left vapor trails. I’d often wake up in the soft light before sunrise, stand on the edge of the dock and look for fish in the clear water.

Perch and rock bass would poke their dark heads out from between the cribs that supported the permanent dock. You could catch them on a tiny jig if you felt like it, like ice fishing in the summer. My brothers, sisters and I used to do it for hours. My kids do it for hours now.

But there was also a huge fallen tree, now mostly gone, with a tangle of branches, a cast away from the side of the floating dock. It held bigger fish.

I remember well, one morning, picking up a rod rigged with a yellow spinnerbait (about the time spinnerbaits were invented, so they were the hot new thing). Even though I wasn’t authorized to use that rod, I walked over and held it while studying the water around that sunken tree. I took the rod back and arced a cast beyond the tree that landed with a plunk, the first real sound of the day. I reeled the spinner just under the surface until it got over a crevice between two branches and let it flutter gently, dangerously, down.

The bait disappeared from view and, for the first time ever, I set the hook like I meant business, like I knew what I was doing. A firm, stubborn resistance came back, sort of the same feeling as being hung up, but I knew better, and the telltale shine of a fighting bass lit up the water around that tree. The battle moved out into open water, featured one good jump, but soon I clamped my thumb on the fish’s lower jaw, unhooked it, and sent it back to the tree.

A little lightbulb went off in my head. I took the 14-foot boat around the corner to a bay guarded by a white whale rock entrance and pulled the boat up on shore. I walked around the edge of another island with my own rod, and used a CountDown Rapala (another hot, new bait at that time) to probe other sunken trees that I knew about. In my mind, I can still see the bait rocking left and right, as it dropped on a slack line between perilous underwater tree branches, and big smallmouths rising out of the darkness to take me for a ride.

Let’s Paint the Next Sunrise for Hunting and Fishing

During my career as an outdoor writer and photographer – which started back in 1977 – the traditional outdoor sports of fishing, hunting, and shooting have seen alarming declines in participation. I’ve been reading participation studies for many years, and observing programs aimed at getting more beginners started, and/or keeping people in the fold… and wishing that gloomy stories about the future would be replaced by news that more people are becoming actual, active participants.

So far, trends of decline continue.

For the past 10 years or so, I’ve been thinking about this a lot. I grew up in a family headed by what we would call an outdoor generalist. My dad loved to hunt, fish, shoot, camp… anything outdoors, especially if it had to do with pursuit and capture. Friends and acquaintances would sometimes ask, “do you have any pictures of your dad where he’s not holding something up that he just caught or shot?”

As the seasons changed, we would switch from fly fishing for bluegills to casting for muskies to jigging for walleyes to grouse hunting to deer hunting to pheasant hunting to ice fishing to turkey hunting, and the cycle continued. There was always something in season.

Since my dad passed away in 2002, I have spent a lot of time looking at old photos and 8 mm movies (both Super 8 and Regular 8, if you remember those) of our family fishing and hunting adventures. Comparing the world we live in now to those days makes me worry more about the future of the traditional outdoor sports. Those images remind me of how much fun we always had out there, and they cause me to look at the world we have ‘developed’ and think that too many people are missin’ the boat.

Too many people spend too much time insulated from the natural world.

It’s harder, for many people, to find a good place to go fishing, hunting, or shooting. And it’s harder, for almost everybody, to find someone who can teach them the basics of whatever they want to try. Success–defined as catching fish on purpose, creating shooting opportunities when you go hunting, and hitting what you’re aiming at when shooting–is what helps beginners form a lasting attachment to the outdoors, and the traditional outdoor sports.

I have decided to dedicate the rest of my career to helping reverse the trend of declining participation in my favorite activities.

More details to come…

– Mark