A little bit here and a little bit there. You keep your eyes open. That’s how you learn. You pick up a new knot from a new fishing buddy, or try a decoy trick you saw in a magazine. You make mistakes. And if you’re lucky, like I was, there will be a mentor along the way. An unselfish someone who cares enough about you that he wants you to know everything he’s ever learned.
That’s the good thing about hunting and fishing and camping: You can never know it all, and you’re never as good as you could be.
Over the years, I’ve learned from the best—mentors, buddies, guides, story subjects, and some of the most dedicated outdoor-skills competitors this world has ever seen. Put them together, and they’ve got a half dozen different ways to shoot a double or cast a fly rod. Here’s the best of what I’ve learned from them, and on my own, in 35 years of hunting and fishing. And this is what all sportsmen should do with such knowledge: Pass it on.
The best trick I ever taught my dog was to sit and stay for practically forever. A quiet, rock-solid sitter will be quickly forgiven for other minor trespasses.
A Predator’s Pace
My earliest hunting memory was of a squirrel hunt in the snow. We found where a fox was trailing a rabbit, and I saw how the fox placed its hind foot almost on top of the front track to make a single line of tracks and preserve energy. That’s called perfect stepping, and I’ll never forget how the trail ended perfectly in a scuffle of dirt and leaves and blood-speckled snow.
My Do-It-All Winch
A come-along can haul your ATV up a steep hill, free a stuck truck, winch a boat to a trailer when the trailer winch fails, help straighten a smashed gunwale, and get a deer out of the creek gully. Mine is stashed behind the truck seats, so I always have it.
Fear the Chigger
Translate a Quack
When I asked a world-champion duck caller what he said into his call, he simply turned the call around and blew a routine with the call backward. I could hear every grunt and tone change. Beautiful.
Know Your Guns
It’s important to know guns, period. You never know when a buddy is going to hand you his shotgun while he tightens his bootlaces. Know how to check the safety and chamber on every conceivable action—bolt, semiauto, pump, double gun, double-action handgun, six-shooter, whatever.
Practice the Long Shot
On an archery antelope hunt, I missed twice at long range. I finally took a nice goat at 37 yards, but I’ve learned to practice shooting my bow at long ranges. At 50 yards and better, little technique snafus show up. Fixing them tightens groups even at shorter ranges.
The Elk of Your Dreams
Elk antlers in velvet can grow an inch a day, which makes sleep impossible throughout the summer if you have drawn a Montana elk tag.
When jump-shooting ducks, how many times have you closed the last 20 yards at a glacial pace only to find that the ducks were swimming just out of range? That’s because they heard you when you were 40 yards from the pond edge. When you’re sneaking on ducks—or squirrels or turkeys—stalk them from the truck. Start getting quiet and sneaky long before you think you need to.
Eat it Now
Don’t save wild game for later, for someone else, or for something special. Grill a chunk of tenderloin or fry a slice of deer heart right now, while everything is still earthy and your face still smarts from the briers and the sound of the gun is ringing in your ears.
Be Your Own Rangefinder
Know the length of your normal stride. It’s fun to test your range-estimation skills, and my stride comes out to 39 inches, from heel to tip of toe. I know that every 10 strides equals approximately 32.5 feet, so I call that 11 yards.
Don’t Fart in Your Waders
That gas is lighter than air—and it can only go up.
Share your Bounty
Share your kill. I take a wild-game appetizer to every party and label it proudly. (O.K., the big bowl of “Rudolph chili” at a church Christmas dinner might have been over the top.) But I give game away to anyone curious about the taste of a duck. I’m a one-man public relations team for eating wild meat.
The Semiauto Sin
Boy, did I screw this one up. I turned my son loose on a semiautomatic .22 rifle way too early. Nearly ruined him for a single-shot bolt action, which is the best tool for learning rifle-shooting mechanics.
The Forgivable Sin
No, I can’t move the gun slowly when the deer is kinda sorta looking my way.
Whistle While You Hunt
It worked for me once, so I know that running whitetail bucks will stop at a loud whistle often enough to make it worth whistling every time.
It’s the Little Things
Once I spread a bunch of bird-feeder thistle seed in front of a two-man deer stand. My young daughter couldn’t believe all the birds she saw a couple of mornings later. And she couldn’t wait to go hunting with me again.
Make the First Shot Count
Keith Gleason taught me how to hunt. He was a Marine sharpshooter just back from Vietnam. I was 13 years old and knew next to nothing, but when we hunted groundhogs with his heavy-barreled .22/250, we traded shots, one for one. I sometimes whined—to myself—that it wasn’t fair to be held to the same standards as a sniper. But I learned early to make every shot count. I have a feeling that was Keith’s plan all along.
Let Kids Have Their Fun
Other parents might disagree with me, but I’ve learned to let my young son blow the duck call whenever he wants, stretch whenever he feels like it, and play Angry Birds in the deer stand whenever he’s bored. I want him to think that hunting with his dad is the best thing ever. The other stuff can come later.
Listen to This
I buy a bunch of cheap foam earplugs the first day of the season, every year, and stash a pair in every place imaginable—shell bags, daypacks, coat pockets, wader pockets, my binoculars case. I once hunted ducks with a guy who held a foam earplug in his mouth like a cigar stub, ready to deploy at a moment’s notice. The older I get, the smarter that seems.
Wake Up Earlier
Much as I love to hunt, I hate getting up. But I’ve learned to get up 15 minutes earlier, and stay in the woods 15 minutes longer. The missed winks are more than made up for by not having to rush to get settled in before shooting light. And that last quarter hour is equal to 900 seconds—900 extra chances for something amazing to happen.
Just Fold Already
Don’t bluff a Cajun in camp poker. Even if he’s only 8 years old.
Take No Hunt for Granted
My most memorable hunting partner was George Bolender, a quadriplegic bowhunter who hunted from a wheelchair outfitted with a bow holder his buddies jury-rigged from an electric screwdriver. He released arrows by puffing into a tube. He got no more than one shot a day. “Don’t ever forget that it’s a privilege,” he told me.
Hammer a Bream Bed
There’s no finer way to usher in spring than with a floating foam spider tethered to a sinking ant. Start with formal attire: Tie on a black foam spider with white legs. Using an improved clinch knot, tie 4-pound tippet to the hook bend on the spider; it should be just long enough to reach the bottom of the bedding area. Add the sinking ant, and you’re in business. It’s a deadly tactic with spinning tackle, too. Just add a casting bubble a few feet up from the spider.
This was a hard lesson to learn: I can’t mix fishing with family vacations. Other people have no trouble with this, but it’s all or nothing, one or the other, for me.
Build a Predator Rig
Gather your tired, your lipless, your scarred and rusty Rapalas, the wretched refuse of your ancient tackle box. And make of them an awesome predator rig. Remove the hooks from a plug. Tie it to your line, and tie a short stout dropper between the trailing eye and a big in-line spinner or spoon, such as a Dardevle. (If fishing for toothy predators like muskies, use wire.) Now you have a rig that looks like one fish chasing another fish, which can trigger a bite like nobody’s business.
See the Spots
It is easy to be bedazzled by all the colors, but it’s pretty simple: Brown trout are light with dark spots. Brook trout are dark with light spots.
Trash Your Yard
Any angler worth his mealworms knows that old logs, scraps of plywood, and pieces of ripped-up utility trailer tarp do not constitute untidy yard debris. These are natural bait habitats and will produce at a moment’s notice a free bounty of earthworms, crickets, and beetle grubs.
Fish in the Dark
Growing up, I was a good boy who gave his mama little trouble mostly because I developed a love of the Jitterbug instead of the 12-pack. And I don’t mean the swing dance. My idea of a hot Friday night was, literally, a hot Friday night, ushered in with an Ugly Stik rod, a Mitchell 300 spinning reel, and a gurgling Jitterbug.
The same tactics still produce: Standing 10 feet back from the water, I’d make a few searching casts along a shallow shoreline. Next I’d ease into the water just fished, and fire long casts parallel to the cover, working every inch of the banks. I used black Jitterbugs that showed up against starlit skies, retrieved them slow and steady, and didn’t set the hook till I felt a solid smack.
Nothing teaches discipline as well as learning to keep that Jitterbug in the water after a slashing miss, giving a midnight bass a second crack.
**Don’t Hog the Bow **
Excuse Me, Mr. Perfect
No, I should not have leaned my favorite trout rod against the open truck door.
Know Your Blades
I used to think a spinnerbait was a spinnerbait, until I read an interview with bass legend Hank Parker that parsed the different varieties. Colorado blades produce lots of vibration for muddy waters and lots of lift for shallow shorelines. Willow blades are better for cold water or clearer water where sunlight can penetrate and flash off the thin metal.
And Parker is a huge fan of tandem blades, especially in heavy cover. If the first blade bumps a rock or treetop, the second one keeps spinning to attract fish and also prevents the lure from toppling to its side and snagging.
Protect Your Catch
Avoid running rapids with a stringer full of fish hanging off the canoe. Trust me on this one.
Pick Your Paddlers Wisely
If you are going to flip a fully loaded canoe in an Alaskan rapid hundreds of miles from civilization, paddle with a bulldog-shaped former hockey player from the Dakota plains who does not know any better than to grab a swamped boat and swim it through the trees. Again, trust me on this one.
C’mon, Respect the Truck
I know they are your favorite fishing snack, but please do not open your jar of pickled eggs in my pickup while we are driving down logging roads.
Develop a taste for beer in cans covered in fish slime.
Raise Expert Swimmers
Ours is a water-loving family. Powerboats and canoes, freshwater and salt, moving water and calm. Our kids have been taught to swim by coaches and experts, because accidents happen, and we want our kids to not just float but be able to swim their way out of trouble.
Fish Are Everywhere
Isotope analysis of songbird feathers reveals nutrients derived from salmon flesh. Works like this: Bears eat salmon. Bears poop. Berry-rich shrubs grow lush with poop fertilizer. Songbirds eat berries. Everything is connected.
Dig Out a Stuck Boat
If you push a grounded boat backward, the transom will dig in. How do you escape? If you are an American outdoor writer, you might wait for another boat to tow you to freedom. If you are an Athabascan native who hauls everything from whitefish to moose down northern Alberta rivers, you dig a trench beside the boat, parallel to the boat’s keel. Then you rock and push and shove the boat sideways into those extra few inches of water. Now you can back out, or extend the trench to deeper water. And you try not to smirk at the outdoor writer riding shotgun.
Tie My Fly
Boy, was I a whiny, impatient beginning fly-tier. In the depths of my petulance I whipped up a one-material fly that could only be described as unartful. I lashed lead dumbbell eyes to a hook, built up a garish thread snout, and wrapped the whole kit-and-kaboodle with pearl Krystal Flash chenille. Offensive? A cheap trick? Yes and yes. But it is hot snot on fish. In various sizes, with or without a gaudy Flashabou tail, it has caught shad, stripers, bluegills, crappies, bass, Spanish mackerel, bluefish, and false albacore. It is known by at least three people as the Nickens Know-Nothing. I couldn’t be prouder.
Eat More Pike
I love the taste of northern pike. Sure, the bones are a pain, but here’s a work-around. Chunk fillets into 1-inch cubes, which makes the bones easier to pick out. Boil for three minutes and drain. Dredge through melted garlic butter. Some call it poor man’s lobster. I call it a snack fit for a king.
Fix Any Flat
I’ve used a Springfield Quick-Change Trailer Jack to change tires on everything from a utility trailer to a small johnboat trailer to a double-axle saltwater boat trailer. It’s the size of a Frisbee, and you can stow it anywhere, so I take it everywhere. One of my best $40 investments, it also makes greasing bearings go easier.
I have never caught a fish with my line out of the water.
Fish the Bass Breeze
I watched reservoir-challenged Total Outdoorsman Challenge competitors learn this lesson the hard way: On a windy day at Table Rock Lake, the inexperienced big-water anglers hightailed it to calm waters or anchored up in the lee of protected points. Bad move. A stiff breeze pushes the entire food chain downwind, from phytoplankton to fingerling fish. Predators stack up along rock riprap, underwater ledges, and other structures to ambush disoriented bait. Calm-water competitors suffered low scores.
Shine a Light for Walleyes
Walleyes, like deer and cats, have an extra light-gathering structure inside the eyeball called the tapetum lucidum, which reflects brilliant pinpoints of light. You can shine a strong light in shallow waters to find walleyes, which you should do as often as possible just because it’s cool.
Bring Home Supper
When my kids were little, the first thing they said upon catching a fish was “Can we keep it, Daddy?” To which I nearly always answered, “Yes-siree-bob.” As long as it was legal, it was headed for hot iron. I’ve battered and fried many a 3-inch-long fish finger, and the smiles on my kids’ faces have helped keep them going back for more.
Save That for Breakfast
Don’t throw away leftover fillets from a camp fish fry. Store fish, boiled potatoes, and other goodies in a zip-seal bag and place it in a cool creek, weighed down with a rock, overnight. For a quick breakfast, heat a tortilla in a fry pan, then reheat the leftovers.
Just One More Cast…
My biggest bass ever was a 10-plus-pound beast that sucked in a small white Woolly Bugger 15 feet from the boathouse. I was fishing for crappies with a 4-weight fly rod. You never know.
Sleep Under the Stars
Growing up we slept under the stars—without a tent or tarp—to prove how tough we were, but now I sleep in the Big Scary Open because I get a huge kick out of nodding off to shooting stars and waking to the first rays of the sun. And it’s super cool to sleep with frost sheathing your sleeping bag. If you’re squeamish about dozing off without the protection of a nylon cocoon, try it my way: Spread out a space blanket, followed by a sleeping pad. Having a couple of feet of ground cloth between you and the bare ground is a mental comfort, yes, and it also means you can spread your arms and thrash around a bit without actually wallowing in the dirt. I wear a fleece cap to hold in extra body heat and keep a flashlight tucked in a boot near my head so I can find it quickly. If it makes you feel better, the other boot can hold a knife, pepper spray, or ninja stars.
Two By Two
The old-timers are right: You need two handfuls of tinder and enough kindling to fill your hat twice.
Trip-Proof Your Tent
In 30 minutes you can replace all of your old tent guylines with reflective cord, and never again trip over them while stumbling around during a middle-of-the-night pee—during which you stub your right big toe so badly that the nail splits and the toe swells and you can’t wear wading boots for two days. Listen to me.
The Snore Solution
Forget the earplugs. Pack your own solo tent.
Cut On a Clean Surface
I always bring a couple of flexible cutting boards on camping trips. They weigh next to nothing, stuff anywhere, and make slicing, dicing, and cleaning fish easier. share the case load Bringing beer should never be the responsibility of a single individual.
A piece of indoor-outdoor carpeting makes a fine front porch for any tent. It keeps the dirt out and doubles as a changing-room floor if you have a large tent vestibule.
Carry It All
I thought I knew how to pack a canoe for portaging—then I took up with a few Canadian friends. Made me look like some dipstick pioneer peddler hawking fry pans in the backcountry. I’ve since dialed up my act, eh? Now when my friends and I take a trip, we start with a couple of monstrous portage packs, such as the indomitable Boundary Pack (cascadedesigns.com). Loaded like a standard backpack, it still has room for tackle bags, daypacks, maps, and all the other crap that winds up strewn from bow to stern.
Unless we plan to use our paddles as makeshift hiking staffs, we lash them, along with fishing rods, to the underside of the canoe seats. Next, it’s Canadian clean-and-jerk time: One paddler shimmies into the lightest portage pack and single- mans the canoe on his shoulders. The other paddler doubles up—wearing the heaviest pack on his back and carrying a lighter one in front by threading his arms through the shoulder harness in reverse. To be honest, with such a load I sometimes peter out halfway down the trail. But there’s a substantial psychic reward in humping the bulk of the gear in one giant effort.
Get Yourself a Barrel
My favorite piece of camping gear is a canoe barrel. These barrels are waterproof. They will swallow a stove, pots, and food for a week. They make a nifty camp seat. Best as I can tell, they are mostly available in Canada and the Boundary Waters region of Minnesota, which is like Canada. Google “canoe barrel” and convert CAD to USD.
**Get More Firewood
When the Party’s Over**
Nobody likes the drive home after a fun camping trip. Use the time wisely by planning the next trip. Right now. Have the outline of another adventure sketched out by the time your tires hit the driveway. Nothing makes the bitter pill of unpacking gear go down easier than the promise of another great trip to come.
From the May 2012 issue of Field & Stream magazine.