Great Family Stories: 15 Tales of Tradition and the Outdoors
Great hunting and fishing stories from Field & Stream.
For many of us, the outdoors are practically a family heirloom—a gift passed down to us the first time we ever spend a morning in the treestand with Dad or Mom, or kill a summer afternoon catching bluegills with our big brothers. Of course, as we spend more time outdoors, we discover there’s much more to this heirloom than just the pursuit of game or fish. There are lessons and legends, secrets and skills, traditions and tools. And, perhaps best of all, there are stories. Stories that are so great they almost become heirlooms of their own, because we can’t help but pass them down. Stories like the 15 you’re about to read.
The Light in the Window | Artifacts | The Lake Effect | Dad’s Gun | The Old Man at Sea | Charms | The Crossing | Oh Brother | Planet Treestand | The White Bear | First Hunt | The Bluegill Date | Helen’s Dock | Food Fight
The Light in the Window
Photo by Gregg Segal
Story by Keith McCafferty
Except for the gaudy wet flies in the circle cast by my headlamp, the only color anywhere was a hazy yellow glow from the window of a stone croft on a hill. My parents and I had rented it for the week we’d be fishing Scotland’s River Spey, and I could picture my mother in there reading, wearing the sweater she’d bought in the secondhand store in Aberdeen, feeding chunks of peat to the fire. I don’t think she’d expected that we would fly a quarter turn around the world to fish from sundown to dawn, but then it shouldn’t have come as a surprise. My father had been leaving her to fish midnight rivers since they were married.
There was a time when she adapted to his passion by donning comical-looking waders and a mosquito net to cast plugs for smallmouth bass, back in the creeks of the Appalachian folds where she and my father had grown up together. I once saw a black-and-white photograph of her holding a bass. But my mother, the best fishing companion I have ever had, was not an angler.
Art was where her heart lay. She showed great promise, her best work an oil painting she did around the time of my birth. It is of a little girl wearing a red dress and a sad face. The girl is sitting alone in a dark room, doing embroidery. It is the last large canvas my mother ever completed and proved to be prophetic: For a woman whose family is her life, she has done a lot of sitting alone in dark places.
On that night in Scotland, with the croft on the hill and the river singing in its sleep, I decided on a pair of flies—a Blue Charm for the point and a pattern called the Medicine for the dropper. Sea trout were moving into the Spey with every turn of the tide and had the maddening habit of merely plucking at the feathers. It must have been toward three in the morning before I finally hooked one and brought it to the bank. It was a fine fish of 4 or 5 pounds with a lavender sheen to its flanks, and the magic of it kept me casting until the sun threw its wick on the eastern horizon. My father had quit earlier and was asleep in the croft. My mother set down her book and smiled from her chair as I came through the door carrying the trout.
That was some 30 years ago, though I do not think of the time passing in numerical terms. Rather, the nights she has spent waiting are measured in cats. The first cat to sit on her lap while she read her book was a Siamese named Velvet. In those years we camped on Michigan’s Au Sable River, and my brother and I would sit in the car with her at one bridge or another as the beam of Dad’s headlamp bobbed away into the cedar swamp. My mother lost me to the river when I was big enough to wade, and my younger brother a couple of years later. By then the cat’s name was Silk, who lived to be 21, and the catalog of rivers had grown to include the Platte, the Betsie and the Manistee in Michigan, and Montana’s Madison. The next cat was Silver. For a long time I failed to notice that the hand petting the cat had grown older.
My father passed away some years ago, but the waiting has continued—my mother once said that as long as she stayed awake, she believed I would be safe. She has waited for me in cold stone crofts, in cars with rounded fins dating back to the 1950s, in a dozen tents, and by a few hundred campfires. She has been at my side, the invisible hand that keeps me steady in the current and to whom I have returned unharmed, for more than 50 years. Even as I jot these thoughts in the notebook I keep in my fishing vest, she is waiting. It is a little after midnight, and the river is the Missouri. I’m fishing just down the hill from her house, and I can picture her wearing the shawl I got her in India, sitting before the fireplace. The cat’s name is Daisy. I make one cast and then another, swimming my streamer in the hopes of a 10-pound trout.
Up the hill, a light shines in the window.
Photo by Travis Rathbone
Story by C.J. Chivers
A pair of dried muskellunge heads, mounted on aged planks, look down from opposite corners of the shed that serves as my office and equipment shack. Visitors stare at them from time to time, uncertain what to say.
Faded to the color of dried bone, with rows of wickedly pointed teeth, these old fish heads are atypical mounts. But they do more than display the purpose-built design of an apex freshwater fish, which is what people sometimes comment of them, once told what they are.
They tell of a maimed man’s desire to cling to the life he had lived—and to rituals of self-sufficiency and meat gathering—before everything for him changed.
The muskellunge from which they were cut were fine fish, albeit not quite trophies by sporting standards. One weighed perhaps 18 pounds, the other a little less, although my father, who handled the fish at the dock six decades ago, cautions that the men who boated the muskies sometimes exaggerated weights.
Forget such ordinary measures. Their resonance taps richer veins.
My father’s father—Joseph Hobart Chivers—caught these fish in the early 1950s from Chautauqua Lake, a narrow strip of muskie habitat in western New York. This would not seem a feat, all these decades on, were it not that my grandfather was blind.
Not just blind. Joseph Chivers was bitterly blind. His wounding remains an ugly tale, even when politely retold. It involved a sort of confusion that anyone who has carried firearms into thick vegetation and over uneven ground can understand, if not forgive. Several hunters were working together on a small hill in Kentucky. A covey of quail burst to flight. One of his companions, near the top of the hill, wheeled his shotgun toward the birds and pulled the trigger—firing squarely into my grandfather’s shoulder and face.
My grandfather had been walking up the opposite side of the hill. The birdshot destroyed his eyes. He nearly died. He never recovered.
That was 1947. A little more than two decades later, as a child meeting the white-haired and sightless old man, I was told that my grandfather had been the rugged type—skilled with rod, knife, and gun. But a hunter can’t hunt without eyes, so he never hunted again. He refused to give up fishing.
My father was 8 at the time of “the accident,” as it was called. His childhood’s trajectory was radically altered, but its new course led to episodes that became etched into his consciousness, of leading his father into small boats and taking him out to chase perch and bass. My grandfather learned to cast the exact distances and directions my father called out to him. The two brought home stringers of fish.
My grandfather sought muskies, too, and had friends with whom he trolled each summer, waiting for a heavy strike. In 1953, he and a friend caught one. In 1954, they caught another. My father, then a young teenager, wanted the muskies preserved but had no money for professional taxidermy. So he chose a method used for deer skulls on local barns: He nailed the heads to boards. The sun would do the rest.
The results, after varnish, were impressive. And sturdy. The heads lasted for years, only to slip from view as the family evolved.
My mother, raised lace-curtain Irish, loathes all species of the pike family, which she sees as unworthy of the same skillet as perch or trout. After she and my father married, the muskie heads drew her gaze. She declared them ugly and crude, which arguably they are, and banned them from living spaces in their home. For years the heads inhabited attics, remaining out of sight deep into the 1980s, when I learned that the mounts, in exile, had never been forgotten.
Not long after I moved to California for a tour in the Marines, a courier delivered a box. I opened it to find the two heads, refinished and packed in shredded paper, with a note from my father. He hoped I might give them a place they deserved.
My life was nomadic. First I traveled with the Corps. Then I moved from place to place for newspaper work. In 13 years I had 13 different homes, which scarcely saw me, as I was endlessly away, often more than half a year. The heads stayed boxed. Eventually, I moved to Russia. The mounts moved to long-term storage.
In 2008, when my wife, children, and I returned to the U.S., we retrieved our possessions from storage at the same time as we were reclaiming an outbuilding that had been precariously near collapse beside our house. Rediscovering my grandfather’s muskies, and understanding what they were, we hung them on the walls of the rebuilt shack. I told our young sons, who were active fishermen already, of their grandfather and great-grandfather, and the meaning that these fish, and fishing, must have had to both men. My sons approved. The muskie mounts had found a home.
Not long ago, our oldest son, Jack, chose one of the heads as a subject for a school project on family artifacts. He examined it, measured its teeth, interviewed my father, researched his great-grandfather and the life he lived, and wrote, with understatement: “My great-grandfather fished despite his blindness, trying to hold on to it as a sort of keepsake hobby.”
As Jack worked, our second-oldest son, Mick, was busy behind the shack where the muskie heads hang. He was preserving the head of a 12-pound pike he had caught through the ice on Lake Champlain. One late-winter day, when retrieving firewood, I found his handiwork—half-dried, still green—on a pile of curing oak. It was a scaled version of what my father had made.
Across seven decades and four generations, remote events cohered. A child, fascinated by the evolutionary design of a northern pike, had paid homage to a man he knows through a pair of muskie-head mounts.
Somehow those markers, wafer-light but emanating ferocity, all but spoke. They told of one man’s stubborn insistence on remaining a father, and of managing to pass on the fishing life to his youngest son, blind cast by blind cast, fighting irreversible blackness, continuing a line.
The Lake Effect
Illustration by Peter Arkle
Story by Bill Heavey
Although my father bought me my first fishing rod, he had no interest in the sport himself. I picked up the habit at summer camps. I was mesmerized. I sat for hours watching my bobber ride the water’s surface—that membrane between two worlds. Above, the known world of clock time, overdue books, and soap. Below, an unknown universe of wild things. I was sure there was something down there meant for me alone.
I listen with envy when friends recall boyhood days spent fishing or hunting with their fathers. I would have liked that. But I don’t recall feeling cheated at the time. My father and I spent most of my youth locked in conflict, him determined to make me obey, me determined not to. My only power lay in rejecting him. Dad loved to sail and tried to teach me. He liked golf and bought me a set of clubs before I’d ever taken a swing. By then it was too late. If he’d really wanted me to like something, he would only have needed to forbid it.
Maybe he wasn’t the greatest father. I probably wasn’t the greatest son. But now that I’m learning how hard it is to share something you love with your kids, I have much more sympathy for my dad. We scattered his ashes seven years ago in Lake Champlain, where he’d learned to sail, and where I’d caught my first fish.
Emma showed promise early on as a bluegill specialist, happily fishing with me in my canoe. Then, almost overnight, all her focus shifted to her friends, who didn’t fish. A few years back, she became obsessed with The Hunger Games and was manic to get her hands on a bow. But shooting in real life is a good deal harder than Katniss Everdeen makes it look in the movies. We were both frustrated. I could feel my father’s blood rising in me at the waste—$200 for an outfit she’d shot three times? I bit my tongue, wondering if it had been this hard for him when I’d turned up my nose at the golf clubs.
When I met Michelle, her older boy, Jack, was dying to catch a fish. The first time a bluegill hit, he set the hook so hard the fish sailed out of the water and over our heads. Then Jack discovered video games. The delayed gratification of fishing was defenseless against Minecraft and Roblox.
My last and best hope is Cole. He’s 8, with an iron will and an IQ that dwarfs mine. Of all the kids, Cole has shown the most sustained interest in fishing. On a recent outing, he insisted on changing lures every few casts, convinced that the new one would do the trick. He still requires an attendant (me) to tie each knot, but he wants no advice about how to rig or fish any bait. He doesn’t believe a jig should ever get anywhere near the bottom. He’ll thread a tiny curly-tailed grub onto a 5/0 wide-gap worm hook. I know better than to enforce any rules. And when he wants to tie knots, he’ll learn them in no time. The important thing now is to stoke the boy’s natural predatory fire.
Later that week, we were fishing a local lake at dusk when a flock of geese and goslings came ashore. As Cole dropped his rod and approached them, two adult birds moved in to intercept. “Easy, bud,” I called. “Geese can bite pretty hard.” He gave no indication that he heard me. I started breaking down the rods and checked back two minutes later. Cole was now on his hands and knees, pretending to peck at the grass like a gosling. He even had the cadence down—peck, lift your head to confirm mama’s presence, take a step, peck again. In this manner, he’d calmed the adult birds and moved to within a few feet of some goslings.
You can’t teach that kind of woods smarts. It’s a gift, a kind of intelligence that doesn’t show up on standardized tests. At that moment, I was seized by the image of Cole as an Indian boy, playing under the watchful eye of me, his hunter-gatherer father. Michelle had by this time come down to help gather up the kids and towels. I touched her hand and tipped my chin toward Cole among the birds. In my best Tonto imitation, I said, “Ah, you see? The boy does well. We will not starve in our old age.”
“Idiot,” she murmured, but smiled. “C’mon, Coley. Time for s’mores.” But then she saw and understood what I’d seen. She said nothing but tightened her grip on my hand. I returned the squeeze. I was thinking that my father had taught me better than he ever knew.
Photo by Nathan Kirkman
Story by Phil Bourjaily
My father’s shotgun, like my father’s interest in hunting, was almost completely worn out the first day he put it in my hands. That was in the winter of 1979, still one of the snowiest, coldest ever in Iowa. My friends had gone back to school, while I was snowbound. Dad, who rarely hunted anymore, said, “We could go pheasant hunting.” I had never been hunting growing up and never wanted to go, but there was nothing else to do.
“Sure,” I said.
He grabbed his Auto-5 and handed me the Beretta ASEL my mother had given him as a gift several years earlier. A handmade boxlock o/u built in the ’50s and ’60s in the same shop that crafts Beretta’s high-grade SO sidelocks, the gun had seen better days: Its stock was cracked through and scratched all over; the fore-end gouged and splintered; the checkering smashed flat; the action loose; the ejectors balky; the rib dented; the oil finish worn; and the bluing faded to gray and spotted with rust. There was an oval hole in the stock where the silver shield for his initials had fallen out.
You wouldn’t know to look at the gun, but my father’s serious hunting days only lasted a dozen seasons or so. During those years, he would go straight from the field to work, teaching his fall classes in muddy hunting clothes, with his dog and gun out in the car. When he picked me up at school, he’d drive home by way of the marsh so he could scout ducks. He used the Beretta hard and put it away wet and dirty. The gun endured the indignities suffered by all duck guns, plus some more of Dad’s devising, like the red nail-polish rear sight he painted on it for shooting deer slugs and the scar in the fore-end where he once used the gun to push down the top strand of a barbwire fence so he could step over it.
Toward the end of our hunt—after he and I had missed every shot we took—I made a long right-to-left crossing shot on a rooster that tumbled into the grass when I pulled the trigger. From that moment on, all I wanted to do was hunt.
My father, though, wanted something else. His lost enthusiasm for hunting mirrored his dissatisfaction with everything else about his life in Iowa. Not long after that pheasant hunt, he left my mother, married a former student, and accepted a job at another university. His Beretta went with him, although he didn’t use it much—a little for desert quail and doves in Arizona, then a time or two for ducks in Louisiana when he moved there. About 10 years after our first pheasant hunt, Dad hung up his 12-gauge. Age and a nagging tennis shoulder forced him to switch to a 20-gauge autoloader, an old Remington 11-48 he found in a pawnshop.
He sent me his old gun.
I saved up until I could afford to ship the gun to Orvis, where the gunsmiths tightened, straightened, blued, refinished, filed, and glued the gun until it looked almost new. I had them open the chokes to IC/M so it could be my full-time pheasant gun. It was a pretty gun when I got it back—deadly, too.
When they asked what initials I wanted on the new silver oval on the stock, I chose mine, not my father’s—a declaration of the distance that was growing between us. He had a new family and life that I felt no part of, and I never forgave him for leaving my mother. Both of us would’ve liked to have been closer, I think, but neither ever found the right words to say.
A few years later, I had Briley put tubes in the barrels so I could shoot steel with the gun because, like my dad—and almost no one else—I hunted snipe. I remember the times when I was very young and he would come home happy, wet, and tired from the Iowa River bottoms with a bag of bedraggled long-billed birds. My own sons will have that memory of me, too.
It wasn’t until I took a hard fall in the field and broke the stock of another gun that it occurred to me I might want to be a little more selective about when I shot the Beretta. I have lots of other guns now, and confess that Dad’s gun is a safe queen. Despite the wonders worked by the Orvis shop, it still needs a little attention. The slender fore-end rattles where it has warped away from the barrels. Before I pass the gun to one of my sons, I hope to have that repaired.
My mother gave me a video of my father hunting with this gun. The movie was shot to be part of a promotional short about hunting. It was filmed in 1965, when my father was almost 15 years younger than I am today. He takes the Beretta and his Weimaraner, Moon, out on a cold day of pheasant hunting on our farm. Moon points a rooster and my father shoots it. There’s no sound to the film. The bird flushes silently and falls to an unheard shot. My father looks solemn throughout.
The film was made just a few months after my family had set out for the Des Moines zoo on my sister’s birthday. On the way there, my father had to avoid another car that pulled onto the highway. He swerved out of our lane and into the path of an oncoming semi. I was uninjured in the front seat. My sister and her friend in the back were thrown from the car and killed.
As I grew up, my father never talked to me about the accident or about my sister. We kept none of her things and had no pictures of her in the house. It was almost as if she had never lived. Looking back now as a parent of two grown sons, I can only begin to imagine the grief and guilt my father felt. He kept his feelings hidden, bearing them with silence and, too often, with alcohol. I don’t know—because he never talked about it—but I think ultimately he couldn’t stand his life in Iowa and had to start over.
I was 7 when I first saw the movie. After it ended, I asked to see it backward. The smoking empty hull popped back into the chamber before the bird fell up off the ground and into flight. Dad and Moon backtracked out of the cold and into the warm house.
I was lucky to have one last good visit from Dad just a week before he died four years ago. There is a lot I wish I had said to him, and even more I wish he had said to me. This gun is what I have left of my father, and it is not enough. What I want is to play that movie backward again and rewind the years.
The Old Man at Sea
Story by Joe Cermele
We broke Barnegat inlet in the pitch dark. Three days earlier, a buddy and I had filled my boat’s cooler with 15 big mahi that were schooled around a buoy 16 miles offshore. My dad was so intrigued that we found these pelagic beauties in range of our single-outboard express that he reluctantly agreed to the 4 a.m. dock departure I swore was necessary if we were going for the repeat. “But only if you promise we’ll catch mahi,” he said.
A 15-knot northeast wind kicked up a snotty 2-foot chop. For the first mile I took it easy, but when I noticed bow lights behind me, seemingly on the same heading, I juiced the throttle. Every time the boat slammed down, Dad piped up: “Slow the hell down!”
“Grow a pair, Old Man River!” Hernias be damned.
Three miles from the buoy, the other boat veered off. Victory. I stopped a quarter mile short to prep. In a few minutes, I was certain, we’d be dancing around the cockpit fighting dolphin.
Dad bought our first boat—a 28-footer he named Little Joe after me—when I was in first grade. It was our floating summer home, and I could never wait for the weekends when I’d be back catching snapper blues off the dock with my little trout rod. Two summers later, during one of our Friday-night drives down, Dad said something I never forgot: “By the time you’re in high school, you won’t want to hang out on the boat anymore.”
He could not have been more wrong.
Dad has always loved fishing, but he’d be the first to admit that his spark for it never grew into the five-alarm blaze mine has become. When I was 12 years old, Dad recognized my obsession and trusted me enough to nurture it without supervision. At midnight, he’d be snoring away in the cabin of our boat at the Jersey Shore while I’d be on the marina’s fuel dock casting to weakfish in the glow of the harbor lights. In October, as he worked on winterizing the engine, I’d be alone under the Brigantine Bridge, hoping to score my first striper. When Dad sold Little Joe during my senior year of high school, I was crushed, but at that point it wasn’t hard to find other ways to fish. You have a buddy with a johnboat. You get your driver’s license, buy an old 4×4, and drive to the beach without relying on grown-ups to haul you around.
For me during those years, it was all about exploration. The more I learned and the more fish I caught, the more I wanted to share what I found with Dad. He was the one who had baited my first hook, taken me on my first party boat, and cooked countless stocked trout that I caught—and barely touched on the plate. I just assumed Dad would be all about ramping up his game, but more often than not my way led him to more folly than glory. There was the time he was almost swept away crossing Brodhead Creek to reach my distant trout honey hole. I once nearly caused him to die of exhaustion lugging 50 pounds of surf sharking gear over 2 miles of soft sand on a thick summer night. And, of course, there was the time I made him rise before dawn to chase mahi.
As I slid the boat into casting range of the buoy, I saw a few swirls on the surface. This was a good sign. I scooped a net of killies and flung them off the stern.
“Just watch,” I said. “As soon as we get the mahi worked up, you drop your bait and I’ll hit them with a bucktail.”
Two small rudderfish swam over and ate a few of the baitfish, quickly disappearing back under the buoy. Something wasn’t right. I dipped more killies and pitched again. Nothing.
“More mahi than I’ve ever seen,” Dad deadpanned.
I threw everything I had at that buoy, trying to at least prove the fish were there, but it was useless. We ended up trolling some false albacore, but it didn’t matter. I had promised Dad mahi.
What I failed to realize was that he just didn’t share my drive to go bigger and farther. Dad likes his fishing mellow and rain-gear free. An evening with an old Jitterbug at the lake up the street suits him fine. Now I understand that, for him, our trips were never about catching fish, but about wanting to spend time with me. Fishing was always secondary.
Dad’s 64 now, and I’ve genuinely come to dig our “old-man easy trips.” My new mission is using what I know to score fish in the holes near the parking lot that have been beaten to death. Whether we hook up or not, I’ll bust his chops for not trying hard enough, and he’ll bust mine for being too serious. Somehow he always manages to remind me how many mahi we caught the time I made him get to the dock at 4 a.m.
Illustration by Spiros Halaris
Story by Colin Kearns
My first fly vest carried a lot of weight. It cost nearly $100—a small fortune to a 17-year-old popcorn-store clerk—but I was betting heavy on flyfishing. My parents were getting divorced, and I didn’t have many high school friends at the time. Flyfishing, I hoped, would become a new passion, or at least a distraction. At the Orvis store, I inspected every vest with no specific style in mind other than I wanted one with a bunch of pockets. To be taken seriously as a fly angler, I assumed, meant you had to wear a loaded vest.
I spent hours organizing my gear and tackle into the pockets. The vest weighed a ton when I finished, but I kept searching for more things to carry—even if they had nothing to do with catching trout. On my desk was a hand-drawn birthday card my little brother, Mike, had recently made for me. It gave me an idea to fill one of the last remaining pockets.
I gathered something given to me by each member of my family. I already had Mike’s card. From Mom, I picked a letter she had written to me in eighth grade. I chose a souvenir token Dad and I had made together at a McDonald’s on which I’d misspelled my teenage nickname, as well as a coin that had been something of a good-luck charm for him. I added another letter and coin from my oldest brother, Brian. Finally, from my other brother Patrick, I chose a pewter figurine he’d bought for me at Diamond’s truck stop, ages ago, on a family trip to chop down a Christmas tree. I placed all the charms in a zip-seal bag that I dropped into my vest’s inside left pocket.
Flyfishing did become a passion, and the longer I’ve kept at it the more weight the bag has gained: a medallion from a high school retreat; funeral prayer cards for Gram, Pop, and PawPaw; a letter from Nonny in her exquisite handwriting; an antique tin of split shot from my wife’s grandpa; a tattered American flag sticker; and a dull pair of nippers, another gift from Brian, that I just can’t bring myself to pitch. There is always room for more.
Over the years, trout water has leaked into the bag. The words on my mother’s letter have bled through the paper so heavily that it’s hard to tell the front side from the back. Mold has collected on the coins and figurine. The stick-man anglers Mike colored on the birthday card look as if they’ve melted. To be safe, I now keep the charms in a more protective vacuum-sealed bag. The collective weight of their messages still brings me hope and company every time I step into the water.
Happy birthday Colin I hope you are happy with your fishing rod… All of you have new beginnings… The next few years are going to be ones of great challenge… He would have been so proud of his grandchildren… I love you and hope you keep this coin with you always… Until we meet again… Big Dogg… There is work still waiting for you… Our family has its share of problems, but there is a lot of love and support… These are the things that are most important.
Photo by Nick Hall
Story by David Draper
I was stuck. Though it was a short crossing, the slough that cut across the prairie between the road and our duck blind was too deep for the short legs of a 9-year-old. I wanted to splash across it on my own, and foolishly thought I could, but Dad knew better. As he ferried the guns and hunting gear across, I waited, impatiently rocking from foot to foot, until it was my turn—another load for him to carry.
Dad would come to me at the bank and turn around so I could climb on his back. I was a scrawny kid—weighing not much more than 50 pounds—but Dad would grunt as he stood, making a production of how I was getting too heavy. “My back can’t take much more of this,” he’d say. “You get any bigger and you’ll have to stay home.”
It was a joke, but the words still cut. I was the baby of the family and a bit of a mama’s boy. I had little interest in the gears and grease that kept my father and brother in the garage late into the night, building and rebuilding hot rods. Mom would often encourage me: “Go help your dad.” I’d try, inevitably handing him the wrong wrench enough times that he’d send me back to the house with a gruff command: “Go help your mom.”
Fall, however, was my time with Dad. I loved the outdoors and constantly asked him to take me hunting or fishing. A farmer, he was always too busy for the latter, but he did like to hunt waterfowl after the harvest was finished for the year. As each autumn weekend approached, I nearly vibrated with anticipation, waiting for him to tell me we were going duck hunting.
“I’m leaving early tomorrow,” he’d tell Mom at dinner. Then stabbing his fork toward me: “You better be up and ready, or I’m going without you.”
For a strong man like Dad, crossing the slough wasn’t difficult—even with me on his back. Still, he’d walk slowly, careful with each step he placed on the sandy bottom as the dark waters parted around his legs. My father didn’t show emotion, and hugs were rare. Here on his back, though, I could hold him tight. His strong arms wrapped around my legs. I knew he would never let me go.
On the opposite bank, he’d lower me safely to the shore. Eager to prove that I deserved the trip, I’d load myself up with more gear than I could carry and stumble the short distance to the blind. I did my best not to be a burden. I never whined about being cold. I never acted bored when the ducks didn’t fly. And I always helped where I could, tossing decoys to Dad from shore as he set the spread, pouring coffee whenever he asked for a refill.
When I got too big to carry, I had to learn to make the crossing—first with Dad at my side steadying me, then on my own. We hunted nearly every weekend of every season until I went to college. Dad gave up hunting then, and I came to understand our hunting trips weren’t about the birds for him.
In recent years, Dad showed a renewed interest in the outdoors. I took him goose hunting, teaching him how to shoot from a layout blind. We went walleye fishing in Canada—after harvest was over, of course. I looked forward to many more years of sharing time in the outdoors with Dad, time that was cut short last spring.
With the help of my family, I carried Dad to a burial plot overlooking his farm. Though it was a short walk, I took a cue from him and walked slowly, careful with each step I placed on the windswept prairie.
Photo by Chris Buck
Story by Dave Hurteau
If you were here, my brother Dan would pinch your butt. Don’t ask. Every family has a goofball, and nobody escapes Dan when we gather. He’s already gotten Grandma and Uncle Geoff, the most elusive. He just finished his famous Wedgie Dance, in which he jacks his shorts up near his chest and gallops around the house. Now, with all of the nieces and nephews bobbing up and down around his legs, Dan is going to tell a story.
“One day, your Uncle Dave and I went duck hunting,” he starts.
I know exactly where he’s going with this—or at least I think I do.
On a frozen November morning, Dan and I launched my canoe into a long wedge of moonlight on the surface of the lake’s outlet. We paddled far down a narrowing tunnel of cattails and loosestrife to the last big pothole, where we put out our spread. At first light a knot of scudding bluebills barreled in low from the lake, hit the brakes, and seemed to hover over our decoys. Easy pickings.
Dan missed by such a breathtaking margin that I honestly can’t tell you what he was shooting at. Maybe a cloud shaped like a duck. But I emptied my gun, too—and whiffed. That’s the way it went all day.
Dan’s wild shooting was par for the course. He’ll tell you himself, with pride, that he’s the world’s worst hunter. His stories of incompetence are legend: the time he mistakenly shot the white duck; the time he was nearly drowned by the goose; the time he hit the gobbler in the toenail, at 6 yards. None of which discourages him in the least. Like everything else Dan does, he hunts for fun.
But my misses were frustrating. One of the reasons I’m so into hunting is because, growing up, it was one of the few things I did better than my four older brothers. Dan, in particular, made that easy for me, and in return I’ve never passed up a chance to hammer him on it. But today he would get his redemption.
By midmorning the action was over. Annoyed with my rotten shooting, I stomped into the weeds to get the stashed canoe. When I returned, I saw Dan eyeing the sky over the closest decoys. He pulled up and fired two shots, and a pair of missiles whizzed down between us and thumped into the cattails near his boots. Dan reached down and hoisted a pair of drake mallards over his head in triumph. Then he busted out his Wedgie Dance, hopping from hummock to hummock. “How about that?!” he beamed.
“Great shooting, Dan!” It was strange. I’d never uttered those words before in my life. But what small part of me didn’t love being outshot by Dan quickly vanished. He deserved a little glory.
As we prepared to leave, I pulled on the canoe, which was stuck on the muddy bank. I pulled harder, and harder…until the canoe suddenly came free and slipped from my fingers. Dan and I could only watch as the empty vessel sailed away. It coasted through the decoys and over the deep channel, before it finally lodged in the buttonbush on the far side.
Dan, still glowing from his success, went into hysterics.
I didn’t see the humor. Of all of Dan’s boneheaded moves in the outdoors, none could touch this one of mine. We were in real trouble. “We’re miles from anywhere,” I yelled. “How will we get back?”
“Don’t worry.” He pulled off his sweatshirt. “I’ll get the canoe.”
“Don’t be an idiot,” I said. “It’s November. You’ll freeze to death.”
“I’ll be fine,” he replied, dropping his waders and undoing his pants.
“No!” I picked up his sweatshirt and tried to put it back on over his head.
That’s when we heard a deep voice: “What do we have here?”
I snapped my head around to see a burly, bearded hunter paddling up the channel from a downstream pothole I never knew existed. He was studying us uncomfortably, not sure if I was dressing Dan or undressing him—or whether that made any difference.
“Hey, man, can you help us out?” I said.
He looked shocked. “Help you with what?”
Dan pointed out the canoe, and the guy eventually got the picture and retrieved it for us.
Dan finishes up the story for the nieces and nephews, but with a surprise twist: Uncle Dave drops the two mallards, and Uncle Dan pushes the canoe across the pothole, potentially stranding us. I quietly object, grabbing his elbow and shooting him a look.
Dan winks, as if to say: I got this, little brother. I know you need to be the real hunter in the family.
And sure enough, I let it go.
Illustration by Corinne Reid
Story by T. Edward Nickens
She didn’t move a muscle, didn’t elbow me in the ribs, didn’t stifle a cry of surprise. When the bobcat stepped out from the thicket, I could sense that something was happening only by the sudden, complete stillness at my shoulder. We were deer hunting in the two-person stand at the oak grove on Edie Pie’s farm, but Markie, 8 years old at the time, was wildcat crazy. I slowly turned to follow her gaze.
The bobcat stretched out on a log and rolled over on its back. I leaned over and whispered: “You’re not the only one who likes to hang out in the sunshine.”
Markie was transfixed. She snuggled in even closer, whispering descriptions of the petite predator’s every move like the narrator on a nature documentary. After a few minutes she rested her head on my shoulder. I don’t know how long we watched that cat, cheek to cheek, Markie’s curls tickling my face. Long enough for several whitetail bucks to slip in and out of range, but they would have passed unseen. I’d shifted my attention to an even more fleeting occurrence.
Hunting is an expansive endeavor in so many ways. The landscapes are broad, the excitement larger than life. But sitting in a two-person stand, with one of my children by my side, harnessed in, held tight by a shooting rail, captured and enraptured by the unfolding drama of a hunter’s dawn—those are treasured times.
I have spent who-knows-how-many hours watching dawns and sunsets, watching pileated woodpeckers hammer the cypress snags, watching ladybugs, watching the sun creep across the forest floor, watching for whitetail deer. It’s hard to imagine how many hushed conversations, whispered dreams, and sweet connections were made with my kids in that tiny little set-apart world. Up there, amid the nuthatches and squirrels, we seem to orbit our other lives, and like the view of a satellite photograph, everything seems to make a bit more sense when viewed from a higher vantage.
Not that every hunt is a Hallmark moment. For a little kid—for my kids, at least—deer hunting could involve an awful lot of Daddy hissing in increasingly irritated tones: “Be still!” and “Quiet, now, for just a few more minutes!” I know I didn’t handle that as well as I should. I’m pretty serious about deer, and there were days when each of us climbed down the stand more frustrated with the other than renewed by the hunt’s gifts.
I think about that—how I should have been more patient—now that those days have passed. Markie is off to college, and last season Jack started hunting on his own, out of his own treestand. I’m back alone in the woods, learning anew one of the hardest lessons of parenthood: Once each phase in a child’s life has passed, it is gone forever. Many is the morning I would trade a shot at a decent buck for a sleepy-eyed little girl at my side, or a fidgety boy, to have my child beside me, shoulder to tiny shoulder, above it all.
The White Bear
Photo by Jamie Kripke
Story by Thomas McIntyre
At the top of the stairs the old polar bear crumbled. After almost 50 years, the rug’s paws with their ivory-yellow hair lay in tatters. The white body was going to pieces like a patchwork quilt unstitching. Soon, there would be only the open-mouthed head left, along with two pocketfuls of claws and a millennium’s worth of elegant hackle.
He’d had the rug in his home, now, for more than a quarter century, collecting it when his father died. His father had said he was going to hunt polar bear, and he hadn’t believed him. He remembered how his father was always going. Going to hunt elk, going to hunt moose, going to hunt deer. Friends would ask, and his father would say yes at once, getting his licenses, sighting in his rifle, paying the deposit if a guide was being hired. Then in the last weeks, there would be a tightness around the mouth and narrowing of the eyes when talk of the hunt came up, the topic a vector for something paralytic. His secret thoughts might be guessed: Would he have to ride a horse? Sleep on the ground? Be exposed to the snow? Ten days or a week before the hunt, he would call his friends and reveal some mysterious ache or undiagnosable ailment that would still require medical attention.
Over the years it became a foregone conclusion whenever an invitation was extended. A dove hunt, of course; maybe pheasant if the weather was temperate; duck hunts in the mud seldom and with reluctance; the rest, not at all, some clear line of demarcation running along the divide of hunts that could or could not be done in shirtsleeves with the keys to his car in his pocket.
The apprehension, though, went beyond physical discomfort. It had something to do with trees, rocky slopes, cactus flats, and too much fearsomely open sky. It was about not having around him the reassurance of his own confines, under his control: the curtain he could draw across the window of a hotel room, the lock on the door to his bathroom, the air-conditioned compartment of his car. He had to know at all times that he had a redoubt and means of escape, though he was the most unlikely candidate for lighting out for the territories. The wild was nothing less to him than durance vile.
This extended, as well, to the hunts he promised his son, then the words after the months of anticipation: “Not this year. Maybe next.” What the father felt when he said those words the boy never knew, whether it was remorse or reprieve.
“I’m going polar bear hunting.”
The boy, 15, did not raise his eyes from the book he was reading in the backseat of the station wagon. With his father’s pledges of hunting broken in so many ways over so many years, he now wanted to do nothing else—what we are most denied becoming our strongest desire—and he was finding ways to do it on his own. His father was no longer a part of it, for him.
“I’m going polar bear hunting.”
The boy looked into his father’s eyes in the rearview mirror. He saw both challenge and appeal. They were in that desert of the age where the boy’s honoring of the man was no longer implicit, and his father’s approval no longer paramount, or generally expected. What his father was wishing from him, the boy could not say. And doubted the father could, either.
“You’re not going,” the boy said, looking back to his book. “You never do,” he added, having learned where to strike.
His father drove on in silence, his shoulders hunched.
He came back from Kotzebue without a bear. He said there had been only one day when the weather allowed flying out onto the ice—as they hunted in those days—and he wanted his friend Roy to have the chance at a bear, which Roy got. It sounded like a rationale, the deciding factor being, in keeping with what the boy knew of him, not generosity but the disturbing scenario of 40-below temperatures, pressure ridges, and floes breaking off beneath a plane on the ice. And the father saw what the boy was thinking.
The next year he did come back with a bear, a hulking, scarred old boar shot within sight of the coast of the Chukchi Peninsula, the brink of Asia. Under a borderless frozen blue sky, the Super Cubs, one for backup, sideslipped onto the ice and sat with their cowlings wrapped in thermal blankets as his father and the guide crossed the crunch of the snow to the bear. He hit the bear five times before it went down, and would have shot it 20 times, or returned for 10 years, to show the boy he would get a bear, none of it having to do, really, with hunting, as the boy was coming to understand it.
After that, until his life ended, the father never ventured out again, except to shoot small birds. He had no more points to make when it came to hunting, or much impulse to seek the boy’s admiration, leaving the boy to wonder how you differentiated spite from love in a man’s actions.
At the top of the stairs, he thought of all his father’s fears, sallow triumphs, wantings, wrapped in the fragile, falling-apart white-bear skin as he folded it carefully. How to find fault, he understood now, when what his father carried was no more than what his father before had given him, what our fathers always give us, the line into the past reflections in an eternity of mirrors, almost invariable?
Lifting the hide, the father’s son took it down to a place of safekeeping, perhaps for his son one day to have.
Illustration by Orlin Culture Shop
Story by Rick Bass
It was like a bad gas-station postcard. While Lowry slept in a patch of sun on a high ridge, exhausted from the rigors of excruciating airport delays on her Thanksgiving journey home from Madison, strep-throated and finals-fatigued, but glad, so glad, to finally be back home in Montana—while she lay in the snow on her back, the mild sun almost warm upon us, and slept, with her rifle leaning safely against a log and a half-gallon jug of brilliant orange juice chilling in the snow beside her—two elk had come pussyfooting down the ridge behind us, scented us, and then detoured quietly, unpanicked, as if our sprawling little impromptu naptime spot was but a newly erected roundabout.
Once the elk were past us, they continued down the ridge, headed to wherever they were going.
We did not find any of this out until later, post-nap, when we arose and started back down the long ridge we had ascended earlier that morning, back when the snow had still been frozen in the darkness, concussive, the night’s last stars fading, the jagged, snowy Pintlers beginning to glow in the distance. Lowry—who had been homesick without maybe quite knowing she’d been homesick, in that curious way that happens when you like the new place where you are, but also miss the old one, home—had kept stopping to take pictures of the rising sun illuminating those mountains. As if in those three short months in Wisconsin she had started to forget the mountains.
One never forgets. But it was the longest she had ever been away from them, and she kept stopping to photograph them as if they themselves were wild animals that might somehow begin moving away from her, or seek in some other manner to elude her.
At the top, once the sun was upon the snow and melting the cast of it, softening it and making it glow and glisten, we had bedded down and rested. The scent of ceanothus, of lodgepole. We were thinking, Maybe deer. I did not think we were high enough or far enough back—only an hour or so in—for elk. She napped, and I sat there and watched, and sometimes thought about nothing at all, though other times I would look over at her, and out at the sunstruck snowy mountains, and think, Wow, we’re hunting. Her first hunt.
She awakened after half an hour or so. We were due home that night, five hours north. It wasn’t a real hunt; we were just kind of easing into it. Just out for a walk. We started back down the ridge, and that’s when we found those new tracks, new and bright in the warming slush. We followed them quietly into the wind.
We followed the tracks for an hour, down into the lower places where the snow went away. We found wolverine tracks from what looked like the day before. Was the wolverine moving the elk around and around on this mountain? It seemed busy, even crowded, yet we saw nothing. But we were hunting. We were into the elk and might get up on them at any moment, except for the fact that they had gotten the drop on us during naptime, and knew we were on the mountain. We played it out, followed them down into the cool shade, trying to parse their tracks in the damp earth, then lost them in the dead winter grass on a south slope. I suspect they made a big circle, always moving, this late in the season, casting a ceaseless net throughout their watershed, trolling for all scent, all predators, always.
At the bottom of the ridge we cut the most beautiful and fragrant little Christmas tree ever, a Douglas fir, and hiked on out, back to the car, tied it to the top, and drove on home. One hunt down, and ten thousand more to go.
The Bluegill Date
Photo by Chris Crisman
Story by Will Brantley
I met Michelle in kindergarten, but I didn’t take her bluegill fishing until we were 17. The best bream spot I knew of was the flat pond, a 2-acre gem hidden in the timber a couple of miles from home. Just getting there was an adventure that required a half-hour trek through woolly, reclaimed mine country, but I didn’t mind the walk, or even baiting all the hooks, for the chance to fish with Michelle.
Turns out, Michelle could bait her own hook just fine. We caught a bunch of bluegills, and a bonus 31⁄2-pound largemouth that was the biggest bass Michelle had ever seen. The date was going great—until she discovered her tennis shoes were infested with a hundred or more Lone Star ticks. I dunked her shoes in the pond, which didn’t faze the ticks in the slightest. “I’d rather walk home barefoot!” she said.
I followed her, carrying the poles, tackle, and stringer—bass included, since Michelle wouldn’t hear of “turning that son of a bitch loose.” We walked on, and for a while we didn’t say much. When we finally reached the truck, Michelle stopped to rub her bloodied feet. I expected her to list the many reasons why this would be our first and last fishing date. Instead, she looked at me and said, “That really is a big old bass.”
A girl like that doesn’t come around every day.
Six years later, newly married and broke, Michelle and I lived in a one-bedroom apartment near Kentucky Lake. We fished almost every day, usually for bluegills. It wasn’t long before a job change carried us to Memphis. The bream fishing in the Tennessee oxbows was even better than the barbecue and blues, but it wasn’t home. Michelle and I moved back to Kentucky less than two years after we left—but it wasn’t to settle down. Michelle wore a bracelet that said Free Spirit, and we lived by that—traveling all over the country, hunting ducks in Louisiana, mountain lions in Colorado, gators and hogs in Florida, and whitetails, turkeys, and flatheads around home. And we still fished for bluegills every spring, same as we’d done since we were 17. Our folks finally quit asking if we were going to have kids.
One fall afternoon in 2013, I walked into the living room and found Michelle lacing up her hunting boots. A good cold snap had set in, and she wanted to do some rattling in her stand.
“Also,” she added, “I’m pregnant.”
A writer prides himself on always having something to say. Right then, I had nothing.
Our child was due June 18. Toward the end of May, Michelle reminded me that it was the first spring since we were 17 that we hadn’t gone bluegill fishing. It didn’t matter that she was now weeks beyond the point of doctor-recommended johnboat rides; Michelle wanted to catch some bluegills and she was going fishing, with or without me.
I’d never negotiated waves more carefully than I did that day. Michelle and I struggled with the fishing at first. One bed produced a dozen keepers, but the others were empty—at least, we didn’t catch anything. Distracted, I reeled in more than a few clean hooks. I kept asking Michelle, “Are you O.K.?”
“If I go into labor, I’ll tell you,” she eventually said. “Stop asking.”
We fished on, and for a while we didn’t say much. Michelle braced her swollen ankles on the gunwale and used her belly as a table to bait her hooks. She kept fishing, and on the first of what would be many “last casts,” she found the best bluegill bed of the day. Soon she was catching a fish every minute, and smiling like she was 17 again, back at the flat pond. As the sun began to set, our wire basket—now genuinely heavy—buzzed with bream. Usually at the end of the day, Michelle quits first. This time, though, we just kept going till it was too dark to see our corks.
William Anse Brantley arrived a day late, on June 19. People say he has my eyes and Michelle’s nose. We’ve got plenty of stories to tell him, including why there’s a 31⁄2-pound bass mounted on the wall. He’ll get his chance to learn about bluegill fishing, too.
Illustration by Chad Gowey
Story by Mike Toth
It’s a little lake. A large pond, really, beneath the short and sharp ridges of northwestern New Jersey, ringed by what had been summer cabins before World War II. My mother-in-law had honeymooned at one of those cabins in 1944, and moved there in 1973 after nine kids and a messy divorce and in search of a marketable skill besides being able to provide 200 meals a week on a Cincinnati fireman’s salary. She took the three youngest children with her and trained to become a licensed practical nurse at 52 years old. I’d wind up marrying the baby of the family.
I knew the history before Reggie brought me there for the first time, back when kids were something other people had. From Helen’s rear windows, I couldn’t stop glancing at the wooden dock down the slope. Lily pads carpeted a flat to the dock’s left. A willow tree leaned over the water on the right, its branch tips tickling the surface. The dock itself jutted out over the crest of a dropoff. I’d eventually fish all over the lake, but the magic would happen right where I was looking, on three consecutive Mother’s Days a decade later.
The first time, I’d set up Joe and Carrie with worms and bobbers, figuring that catching some sunnies would keep them occupied for half an hour. Joe caught a bluegill right away—a broad and dark 8-incher that yanked his rod down hard. “Can we keep it?” he asked.
“Nice fish!” I said. “But we’d need a lot to make a meal. Let’s put him back.”
Joe rebaited and promptly caught a 9-incher with a humped shoulder. A few seconds later, Carrie pulled up its twin.
“Get your stringers,” I said.
Helen and Reg had come down to watch. “Fishermen here tell me that my dock is one of the best places on the lake,” Helen told me, and I swiveled around in surprise. She’d known this all along but never shared it until now.
A year later we were back on the dock, armed with a tackle box and a coffee can full of worms. Joe began strenuously whipping a small plug straight out. Carrie dropped her twist-tail straight down off the dock where she could see it. “I like to make it dance!” she declared, gently twitching her rod tip. I looked down and watched a bluegill the size of a pie plate slide out from beneath the dock, eyeball the gyrating pink worm, and attack it viciously. “Dad!”
Joe, seeing this, grimly began casting harder and farther, as Carrie hooked another keeper with 6 feet of line out.
That night, filleting a pile of bluegills at home by lamplight, I marveled at how Helen was content to spend half of Mother’s Day at the foot of the dock, watching two of her 10 grandkids fish.
Helen lives out of state now. A guest bedroom in her little house is called the Lake Room, decorated with photos of four decades of relatives swimming, rowing, and fishing. Centered on one wall is a framed print of Joe and Carrie holding a sagging stringer of fat bluegills, crappies, and yellow perch, plus a trout that must have washed in from a mountain stream during a spring storm. They’d caught them all on the last Mother’s Day at the cabin before Helen had to move. The kids are proud and happy, pretending to struggle at holding up the stringer. Behind them is the dock, sturdy and giving.
Illustration by Jörn Kaspuhl
Story by Steven Rinella
One of the nicest things about hunting with my two brothers is that there’s no need to worry when an argument breaks out. Since we’ve been fighting with each other our entire lives, anything that could happen has already happened a thousand times before. I found solace in this truth the first time we hunted Dall sheep. Matt and I flew up from Montana and met Danny at his home in Anchorage. After packing what seemed to be an adequate amount of freeze-dried food, we drove northeast and then parked along the bank of the Matanuska River. We inflated an old raft to get across, and headed into the mountains for a nine-day backpack hunt.
We figured that we’d clear the brush and enter sheep country within a day, but three days later we were still struggling through alders. Along the way we found plenty to fight about: which part of the river we should follow; where to camp; whether it was safer to go over the top of a tunneled glacier or through it.
“It’s dumber than hell to go through there!” Danny yelled, his voice drowned by the torrent of water.
“You’re being paranoid,” Matt said. “It’s faster than climbing way the hell up there and falling into some crevasse.”
“How about we go through one at a time?” I said. “So that two of us can dig the third out if it collapses.”
“Give me a break,” Danny said. “You don’t dig someone out of that, unless you’re packing a collapsible backhoe I didn’t know about.”
In hindsight, these disputes were proxy arguments for the main issue, which was lack of food. Someone had screwed up majorly, and we’d begun rationing our grub—a subject that was strictly off-limits. Together we’d been through enough hardship in the woods—grueling hikes, frozen fingers, sleepless nights, much of it made worse by an unflinching father—to know what sorts of things can be resolved through bickering and what requires shutting up and sticking together.
A week into the trip, after we’d cut the last of our throat lozenges into three equal pieces, we killed a small black bear. We spent hours gorging ourselves on what has become one of my favorite meals: bear meat fried in bear oil. For dessert, we each had a handful of cracklings. I kicked back to enjoy a satisfied nap and noticed Matt eyeing the pot of rendered lard. “You’re an idiot if you drink that,” I said. “You’ll be messing your pants within an hour.” If he’d had any reluctance, my comment took it away. He guzzled the whole thing, then turned smug with pride when a couple of hours passed without so much as a gurgle from his gut.
Finally, on the eighth day, we saw our first sheep. It was up on a peak a couple of miles away. We knew it wasn’t a legal full-curl ram but loaded up a sack of bear meat and climbed after it just to make sure. That night, we had another big argument about which route would best get us back down to where we’d left the rest of the bear hanging in a tree. Danny and I took a descending ridge, while Matt took a “shortcut” down a cliff. We made it back shortly after dark, but Matt didn’t come trudging in until the next morning. “You might have been right about that lard,” I gloated, “but you were damn sure wrong about your route.”
On our last day, we started the long walk back toward the truck. As we hiked, I noticed that each step felt a little lighter than the last. It wasn’t happiness about leaving that made the hike go easier; rather, it was the familiar exuberance that comes from having worked with my brothers—and, admittedly, sometimes against them—to survive another solid ass-kicking from Mother Nature. It was enough to wash away any hurt feelings that might have come from sharply spoken words, with plenty left over to scrub away disappointment about getting skunked. And I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t pushed along by something else as well. I already knew the first thing I was going to say when we reached the truck.
“Who the hell’s the genius that calculated how much food to bring?”