As 2021 comes to a close, we’ve been publishing year-in-review stories: the biggest deer of the year, the biggest fish, the weirdest fish, and the best gear. To wrap up this series, we wanted to share a collection of our best hunting and fishing moments of the year. Probably like you, the editorial team has spent countless hours in the field (and on the stream) this year, and while we enjoyed every minute of every trip into the wild, these are the moments that stood out to us the most—the moments we’ll never forget.
The Favorite Pheasant
I’d never seen another hunter on this place before. The tailfeathers of one of my pheasants sticking out of his gamebag only added to my mid-season funk. Duck hunting had sucked this year. I’d lost a pheasant earlier in the week. I had seen exactly one bird in a three-hour slog around the last farm, which most years held lots of birds. True, Zeke had pointed that lone rooster, and I shot it, but why let that ruin a perfectly good bad mood? I was on a roll of grumpiness. I leashed Zeke, opened my gun, and went to meet the competition.
Unlike me, who was pretending, Emery seemed genuinely delighted to run into the other hunter with permission here. It turns out we had met once before. As we talked, Zizi, his Brit, started acting birdy, then went on point 15 yards away, her stub tail vibrating. “She might have one,” Emery said. “You can shoot it if you want.”
I closed my gun and walked up to the dog. The wagging tail and sparse cover made me think there wasn’t a bird there. Zizi let out a cross yip, relocated, pointed, circled, and barked angrily some more. In that way of flushing pheasants, the rooster materialized, 3 feet long and cackling, where there had been nothing an instant before. I let it get out a bit, then shot it in the head.
“I can’t believe it sat there the whole time we were talking,” Emery said. “That has to be my favorite pheasant of the year right there.” We hurried up to the top of the hill so we could take turns getting pictures of ourselves and our dogs with the birds in the last of the afternoon light. When I smiled for the camera, I wasn’t pretending anymore. It might have been my favorite pheasant of the year, too. —Phil Bourjaily
A Golden Moment in the Stand
It’s funny how an entire hunting season can turn on a moment—and often does. This is especially true when it comes to bowhunting for whitetails. You sit for days, usually to the point where you wonder how anyone kills a buck with a bow, and then at 8:22 am you hear a stick crack and look down to see a deer with a body that should have a saddle on it waltzing right into one of your shooting lanes. And just like that, your season looks very, very different.
The moment isn’t when you shoot the deer, though. It’s when it dawns on you that you’re going to. That your plan has somehow come together, and that a buck is actually going to do what you’ve been hoping a buck would do all this time.
Earlier this year, I was overlooking a cut cornfield on a perfect October day—crisp enough to expect deer to move but pleasant with the sun on my face. The farmer had overseeded the field in rye that had shot up enough to blanket the area in that vibrant young-green color. The moon was rising in a spotless sky overhead, and the maple trees on the hillsides all around were just past peak.
I took a video of the scene on my phone and texted it to a buddy, saying, Now this is the kind of day when I don’t mind sitting in a stand for hours. But then the hours passed.
Anything? my friend texted me with only a half hour of light left.
Nope. I answered. It ain’t gonna happen.
Before I could get my phone back into my pocket, the first of four bucks stepped out of the timber and sauntered over to a mock scrape I’d made on a little knoll along the far edge of the cornfield. The biggest one, a middling 9-pointer with a big body, came out last, pushed the smaller ones around some, and then shot back into the timber to chase a doe. The littler bucks closed ranks at top of the knoll and sparred, feeling a little tougher, probably, in the bigger one’s absence.
As quickly as he broke off, the 9-pointer returned and retook the hill, where he could survey the field and sort of ooze swagger. There was no reason to think he’d take a hard right turn and walk 400 yards to my bow stand. I thought, What the heck? and snort-wheezed to him. Through my binocular I watched the hairs on his back stand up. They had looked almost black, flat against the broad span of his spine, but when they stood up, they caught the sun’s rays and made the buck look like he was outlined in highlighter pen. He snapped his head my way and stared.
Looking through the glass, I thought, Oh my God, he’s going to walk right over here. And he did. I snort-wheezed again, and he lowered his head and started toward me, swaying as he stepped. Meanwhile, it was like little word bubbles popped up over the heads of the smaller bucks that said, “Well if he’s going, I’m going,” and all four wound up right under my stand.
For a long time after I took the shot, in the light of the rising moon, the little bucks sparred out in front of me, feeling a little tougher, probably, in the bigger buck’s absence. —Dave Hurteau
A Washout Opener
Opening morning of squirrel season, and it’s raining hard enough to float duck decoys in the driveway. Anse has been awake since daybreak, but instead of hunting he’s watching cartoons in camo overalls. He gets up to step onto the porch. “I think it’s letting up now, Deeds,” he says, and tells me to step outside and look, as if I could be missing some important detail from the couch. I check the radar on my phone and see nothing but green, orange, and yellow.
“Buddy, the squirrels are in their dens, and it’s not safe to run a boat right now,” I tell him. He closes the door and glares, but stops short of holding me personally responsible for the weather. At noon, finally, the rain is broken by a bright, hot sun that immediately blankets the woods in a tropical steam. I tell Anse we can go, but bookend it with a stern warning that we’re unlikely to see anything.
We run my boat across the bay to a hardwood point, where I’d found fresh cuttings under a big shagbark the day before. We sneak in close to that tree, and two young gray squirrels are feeding low in the canopy, as if they’ve been placed there to reward the child’s patience. Two squirrels in two pops of his .410 is a good way to begin the season. We wait under the hickory a while longer, but the heat, and probably our shooting, have stifled the movement. We decide to try a different ridge on the west bank of the lake where, at least, we might have enough shadows to call shade.
It’s difficult to distinguish squirrel cutting from the rain droplets falling from the leaves, and for an hour after we move, the hunting is slow. But then Anse sees a squirrel suddenly jump to a tree, maybe 60 yards away. The critter has spotted us, too, and is scrambling. “Get him with Big Blister!” Anse says. I drop the squirrel with my .17, and the boy, who recognized in an instant that the animal was beyond his own range and that I should shoot instead, sprints through the woods to retrieve it.
All the while, the sky is blackening again. We rush to the boat, tied to a stump on shore, but I know we can’t outrun this rain. Anse huddles next to me on the boat ride back—45 pounds and barely waist tall, wearing a cartoon character life jacket. He’s squinting from the rain in his face, and water is sloshing at the top of his knee boots. I’m running the bilge pump and am thankful we don’t have far to go. “You OK, buddy?” I yell at him, over the sound of the outboard and the storm pelting the aluminum deck.
“Yeah,” he says, water falling off his nose as he nods. “I’m just glad we didn’t get skunked.”
That best moment of ’21 was also one of my best moments to date. —Will Brantley
In the Net
The path down to the bank was steep, muddy, and slippery—just how I remembered it. The leaves appeared to fall in slow motion, and the noise of the river fueled our excitement. I spotted the dead tree on the far bank. Back in my steelhead-bumming days, this served as my landmark of where to safely cross. I helped my dad across, making sure to go slowly as he told me all the ways we could die if we fell in—which was on par for my dad.
The four years I spent in Syracuse, N.Y., were for college, but I was rarely in a classroom during peak steelhead migration. My buddies and I became obsessed with this fish, and the adventures we went on always ended with a phone call to my dad to fill him in on what stupid thing we did that day. He had never caught a steelhead in his five trips to the Salmon River with me, and this goal remained high on his bucket list.
I had hooked a couple of salmon that day before I broke off on a snag. When I looked back downstream to check on my dad, his line was already across the river and moving like a freight train through the rapids. There was no doubt in my mind, This was a chromer. I quickly grabbed the net and rushed into the river. My dad had made up some ground on the fish, and a big silver plate reflected through the water before it made another run. I started to move downstream when I slipped and fell into the river. Water filled my waders, and my spikes grabbed onto a rock as I frantically got back up. As I regained my footing, I saw the line heading toward me. I yelled, “Keep it tight!”
The line was starting to go slack before the fish turned and it went tight again. I knew we didn’t have much longer before one of the hundreds of sharp rocks sealed the fate of this battle. I trudged out farther, careful not to fall again, and spotted silver through the dark water like a shiny quarter reflecting in a fountain. Dad turned the fish, and I scooped it up in the net. I looked back to see my dad with a fly rod in one hand and his other fist pointed towards the sky.
It was just like old times. —Ryan Chelius
I’m generally not prone to hairbrained ideas, but I had one while fly fishing on a pond this summer—and, man, did it pay off. Let me lay the groundwork: Every July 4th weekend, my wife and I book the same house on Long Island with some friends. It’s always one of my favorite trips of the year. We do the usual summer stuff—swim, bike, grill, build bonfires—but this was the first time I added fishing to the agenda. About a week before we left, on a whim, I entered the address of the rental house on Google Maps, then zoomed out till I could survey the entire town. Sure enough, there was one small blue speck. I zoomed in on the pond and spotted one public-access point. That was all the incentive I needed to pack my 4-weight rig and a box of panfish poppers.
The first morning of the trip, I woke up early and drove to the pond launch, which is restricted to canoes, kayaks, and other non-motorized craft. All I had was a pair of old Chuck Taylors I keep as summer wet-wading shoes. I walked into the pond and landed a tiny bluegill on my second cast. This is gonna be fun…
I waded deeper and started casting to the edges of some lily pads, and for the next two hours I caught dozens of medium- to jumbo-size bluegills, plus the occasional small bass. All on poppers. And that’s how it went day after day of the long holiday weekend. I was having so much fun that I began to question why I’ve been bothering with trout all these years. The last day of our trip, I was having my best morning yet. That is, until another angler launched his boat, paddled to the north side of the pond, and promptly boated a largemouth that was bigger than anything I’d seen all weekend. That’s when I hatched my hairbrained plan…and the success or failure of it rested on my back.
I was wearing an airtight waterproof backpack, and thought maybe, just maybe, I could use it to float-swim my way to the nearest bank so that I could fish some new water. Picture a 40-year-old hugging a Yeti Panga and with a fly rod clenched in his teeth, kicking his way across the water. I must’ve looked like a cross between a Lab doing retrieving drills and an old-timer kickboaring in a YMCA pool. But, the plan worked.
Soon enough, I reached the bank—and was within easy casting distance was a fishy-looking weedline. I cast along its edge and made a few strips. The strike wasn’t as splashy as those from the bluegills, which was my first clue that I’d hooked something big. My 4-weight doubled over, and in the clear, shallow water I saw what putting so much pressure into the rod—the biggest bass of my life. After a short, sluggish fight, I lipped the largemouth out of the water. The fish was 10 times as big as anything I’d caught all weekend; 100 times as big once you factored in the bonus points awarded from the success of my plan.
After I released the bass, I tried to make another cast—but my rod collapsed. “Split in half” is another way of describing it. Turns out, ultralight 4-weight fly rods aren’t exactly cut out for 5-pound bass. After the weekend of fishing I’d had, though, all I could do was laugh. I broke down my broken rod and took a proud last look at this pond that I’d found on a whim. Then I swam back to the launch. —Colin Kearns
My Boy’s First Bass
Charlie, now 4, is better with a fly rod than a spinner. Santa brought him an indoor practice caster on his second Christmas, and the short rod, plus our pair of cats, made for nearly endless entertainment. He eventually graduated to a short 3-weight and became fairly proficient. Though the presentation leaves a bit to be desired, he can toss a foam spider 20 feet with enough grace to convince the bluegills at our local fishing hole to eat.
But this time we were on my favorite smallmouth lake, and I wanted him to try his luck with something bigger. Lacking the arm strength and coordination needed to chuck bass bugs, I set him up with a spinning rod rigged with a Senko. We paddled out to a rock pile in 10 feet of water, and he let one rip. The cast was less than elegant, but he managed to deposit the worm in the vicinity of the structure.
It took him a minute to figure out the bail, but he eventually got it shut. The delay worked to his advantage, letting the Senko reach the rocks dotting the bottom. As he cranked, the rod went tight and he was locked in battle with his first smallmouth bass. He had fought some impressive carp before, but he had always had my help. But seated in front of me in the square stern, he was all on his own. The fish gave him quite the workout, and I was certain he was going to lose the rod on more than one occasion. Eventually, I slid the net under the 16-incher and we both became overwhelmed with pride.
Recently, my wife asked Charlie what his favorite things were: “Mama, Dada, and fishing.” I felt that same flash of pride wash over me again. I can only hope that continues. —Joseph Albanese
A Shore Thing
I was beginning to think surf casting was some kind of elaborate scam. As I cast from the beach in my swim trunks, I had a hard time believing there were really any fish in the sandy shallows of the Pacific where’d I’d just taken a dip. And besides, I’d been surf casting for several months along the coast of California with nothing to show for it.
It was the day before Thanksgiving in San Diego, where I’d met my family for a vacation. In September, I had purchased my first surf-casting rig—a stout Ugly Stik combo—shortly after I’d moved to the Bay Area from Colorado. My partner, Bela, had taken a dream job in Oakland, and despite my reluctance to live more than an hour from the closest trout stream, I joined her. Not being able to go fishing during the week had started to gnaw at me, but I knew there were fish to be caught in the San Francisco Bay, which was only a 10-minute drive from our new house. Hence, the new Ugly Stik. But after several fish-less months soaking frozen anchovies from the nearest jetty, spending more time trying to figure out how to get the danged things to stay on the hook than actually fishing, I was questioning both my purchase—and my decision to move out to the West Coast from the Rocky Mountains.
I hoped I’d have more success in San Diego—but so far, it wasn’t looking like it. The Battlestar 115 Jerkbait I’d been casting triggered zero strikes. Dozens of pelicans were dive-bombing baitfish 50-plus yards from shore, leading me to believe the fish feeding on those baitfish were just out of casting range. After I got my line tangled, I decided to take a break and go swimming with Bela, my dad, and my younger brother Luke.
By the time we finished, the birds had moved in closer, and I couldn’t help but fire a couple more casts. I waded out until I was waist-deep and launched the lure—and a fish hit it hard on the retrieve. I’d worried I wouldn’t be able to recognize a strike on such a big rod, but that feeling was unmistakable. Turns out, though, the strike was better than the fight. I quickly cranked a small silver fish in to the beach. I didn’t even know what kind of fish it was at first, but Luke used his phone to identify it as a yellowfin croaker. The 14-incher didn’t look particularly impressive with the 5-inch jerkbait dangling from its mouth.
But it didn’t matter.
I’d done it—caught my first fish from the surf. I was damned relieved I wouldn’t have to head home after another skunking. My family gathered around as I pried the treble hook from the fish’s mouth. Meanwhile, the pelicans continued to dive-bomb baitfish, surely still far more effective at saltwater fishing than I was. Well, it’s a step in the right direction, I thought.
Though I’m typically a catch-and-release kind of guy, I decided to keep this one. We pan-fried it at the vacation rental that night with butter and garlic powder. It tasted better than the Thanksgiving turkey. —Sage Marshall