Hidden Gems: Short Tales of Elk Teeth, Beer Cans, and Other Obscure Trophies

Short tales of elk teeth, beer cans, and other obscure trophies.

In our December-January issue, you’ll find a series of short essays titled, "My Trophy," from the F&S writers and editors about the stories behind their favorite personal—and in some cases, obscure—hunting and fishing trophies. There’s not a single head or rack in the collection. Instead you’ll find tales about fish scales, elk teeth, an old-school walkie-talkie, and more. We've compiled all of them in this gallery. Now we’d like to hear your stories and see your trophies. (Again, we’re more interested in the smaller, more personal trophies you have than the mounts hanging on your wall.) Email a photo and short story (100 words or less) of your trophy to colin.kearns@fieldandstream.com. We’ll include our favorites in a separate gallery of reader trophy stories.

goose band
Out With a Band My dented goose band is like one of those Civil War Bibles with a bullet lodged in it, except that the band didn’t save the life of its wearer. According to the FWS certificate I received when I reported the number, the goose was “too young to fly when banded” in southern Minnesota in 2011, and it wore the band until I shot in Jan. 2015. I had always wanted a pellet-marked band as a novelty, but when I look at this one, with its deep round divot making a period that marks the end of the bird’s life, I think about the goose’s journeys and how I ended them. Bent by the pellet's impact, the band stands out among the others on my lanyard, instantly recalling that afternoon. It was the last day of the season, cold and windy enough to tip decoys and turn semiautos into single-shots. Between flights, my young hunting partners and I ran through the decoys to stay warm. The end of the hunt brought us four limits of Canadas and the dented band—as perfect an end to the season as I could hope for, but the end, nevertheless. —Phil Bourjaily Photograph by Dan SaelingerDan Saelinger
bowhunting, travel trunk

The Traveling Trunk

Like any hunter who’s been at it awhile, I have a man cave decorated with heads, antlers, and hides. But the trophy that gets the least attention—a skinny tree trunk with a broadhead buried in it—is the oldest and, to me, the most important. I dove into bowhunting as a teenager, on a patch of Iowa public land pounded by duck hunters and deer nuts. Just seeing a deer was a victory; getting a shot seemed an over-the-moon proposition. All that changed on a November morning when I emptied my quiver at a rut-addled 8-pointer that followed a drag-rag trail to my stand. My first three arrows went, consecutively, behind, above, and under the buck. I finally worked through the adrenaline dump and, with one arrow left, focused on the buck’s rib cage. I never noticed the skinny river birch just behind his shoulder. The impact sounded like a rifle shot when my arrow dead-centered that tree. Moments of clarity rarely visit 16-year-olds, but I had one that morning. I removed the section of birch trunk containing my broadhead with a folding handsaw, carried the trophy out, and hung it in my bedroom. That totem has been on display in every place I've lived in the 40 seasons since. It reminds me of a teenage boy with many paths—some of them pretty bad, all of them confusing—ahead of him. But the thrill of that November morning convinced him that, no matter what, he would always be a bowhunter. —Scott BestulDan Saelinger
flyfishing, muddler minnow

The Super Fly

There’s a Muddler Minnow in my fly box that I refuse to cast. It’s cheap and poorly tied compared with other patterns in the box, but I won’t risk losing it. That Muddler, and a half-dozen other flies, came with the starter kit I bought the summer I began flyfishing. After three months of trying, though, I’d yet to catch anything. During a visit home that October, I fished the river near my parents’ house, hoping to have something to show for endless casting practice and time spent poring through piles of fishing magazines. That year had been trying in other ways, too: I’d moved 500 miles for a job, leaving behind family and friends, and the stress of the new job caused me to shed 20 pounds. Being a lousy fisherman didn’t help. I slung a nymph all morning, fishing hard but coming up skunked. By late afternoon, I had all but given up. As I waded back toward my truck, I tied on the Muddler Minnow on a lark—but on my second cast to a small pool, a palm-size smallmouth broke the surface and snatched the fly. It wasn’t an impressive catch, but that hardly mattered. I finally had proof, albeit small, that I could land a fish, and that’s all I’d wanted. I retired the Muddler that day, placing it in my fly box's topmost spot. I have other flies that are flashier and nicer, but none of them will ever hook a fish I've needed more. —JR SullivanDan Saelinger
birding, jake beard, turkey hunting

The Shawshank Jake

Beards and spurs do mean something, but I rarely measure them. A trophy turkey isn’t quantified with numbers, but with the experience. That’s why I’m proud of this jake beard. I killed the bird at Land Between the Lakes, the same public area where Harold Knight and David Hale honed their craft. As far as I’m concerned, it’s home to some of the toughest turkeys in the Southeast. The bird I heard gobbling on the final morning of the 2015 LBL season was putting up such a half-assed effort that I almost didn’t go after him. I guessed him to be two ridges away. He was actually four, and what I assumed was a creek bottom separated the third ridge from where I needed to be to kill him. Turns out, it was a blacktop road. I thought, No way can I cross without him seeing me. But there was a culvert under the road. It was just wide enough for my shoulders, and there was a good trickle flowing through. There was some risk of getting stuck inside and starving to death, but I figured if that happened, my demise would at least be accompanied by an excellent story. I wormed my way through the culvert, Andy Dufresne style, sliding my gun and pack through the trickle ahead of me. Twenty minutes later, I was soaking wet but sitting on the fourth ridge, staring down my gun barrel at a red head. Only then did I realize he was a jake. I removed my safety without a moment's hesitation. —Will BrantleyDan Saelinger
canine teeth

Missing Teeth

I tend to lose things. So, besides antlers, I rarely keep tokens from hunts, even when I try. Often, I forget to try. When I killed my first and only bull elk with a bow—the most exhilarating hunt of my life—it never even crossed my mind to keep the prized canine teeth, the ivories. But the next day at camp I noticed that I didn’t have my knife. There was only one place it could be: the gut pile. I really liked that knife, but not enough to huff back up and down the mountain. Then I couldn’t find my glasses. The knife was lying between the stomach and the liver. My glasses were right where I’d put them, pushed down over the nose of the bull’s de-antlered head—not as a joke but so they’d be too conspicuous to forget. When I reached to grab them, I noticed the earpiece was pointing at the bull’s teeth. I cut around the gums with the blade, and bashed the ivories out with the butt of the handle. That was four years ago, and somehow I still have the ivories. Must be they just mean more to me than other stuff. After all, I no longer have the knife or the glasses. —Dave HurteauDan Saelinger
old cans, aluminum cans

Dad’s Cans

I’ve carried them from my childhood home to my college dorm room, to the duplex I rented after graduation, to my first home and my second and now my third. They don’t take up much space. We parked by the side of a dirt road and scrounged up two cans from the ditch. Daddy shot first: His blast obliterated the Pepsi can, leaving the top and bottom barely connected by a metal strip that would fail, despite my years of efforts to keep it together. I went next. It was the first time I’d ever pulled a trigger, and I almost missed the Budweiser can: Three pellet holes pocked the bottom half. We left the woods—but not without the targets. That was the only shot I would ever share with my father, our only time afield with a gun. He died a few months later, unexpectedly. He never got the chance to buy me a gun. Instead, I carry our cans from place to place—for 41 years now—like the-embers from a fire. —T. Edward NickensDan Saelinger
walking stick

An Irish Pick-Me-Up

It was a terrible shoot for woodcock, 30 years ago in the west of Ireland, a day of walking the stony slopes and along the rock walls, the Lab refusing to go into the gorse to flush the birds, and all the while the gillie, Michael, howling: “Frisky! Hie cock! Get up here, Frisky!” One bird did get up, throwing me a glance as it jetted past; and all I could do was turn and trip, and land in the long grass as the bird vanished into the air. As afternoons end so often in Ireland, I sat on a stool in Joe O'Grady's in Tubber with another gillie, Jack, who talked about the fine hunts there'd been in the past. Then a thought—and Jack was up and out of the pub. He returned minutes later with a varnished stick in his hand. "This is for you, sir," he said. "A fine blackthorn for beating the bushes on your next try at woodcocking." He put it in my hands. "I wasn't sure I had another," he said. "But when I nipped over to my house and saw that I did, me heart lifted." Mine lifted, too. —Thomas McIntyreDan Saelinger
fish scale

Silver Treasure

My first tarpon ate a pinfish swimming under a cork in Key West Harbor. The fishing had been slow, but as we motored in we saw the silver backs of dozens of tarpon rolling in the channel. We anchored up in the current and cast a few baits. For some time we watched the tarpon rolling, amazed by their size and abundance. And then the cork went down—not just taken but yanked below the surface as if by the hand of a sea demon. I set the hook, and out came the tarpon. First its massive head, mouth agape, then its silver body. And it kept coming. Clear of the water now, the fish gyrated wildly through the air. After that it was a classic tarpon fight—keep it off balance, pump and reel, rod tip to the side. Eventually the guide reached for the leader. I bent over the gunnel and touched the fish while he revived it. I didn’t want this to end. The guide pulled a scale from the fish’s flank with his pliers. “Keep this,” he said. Fifteen years later I still have that scale on my desk. I often try to count the rings on it, which tell the fish's age, but usually can't get past 12 or so before I get lost in the memories of that first tarpon. The one you never forget. —David DiBenedettoDan Saelinger
fur-bearing fish

The Fur-Bearing Fish

The origin of this fur--bearing fish dates to a time when a basically truthful fellow who had done no more than stretch the length of a trout felt the first calling of fiction. The fish that bit the hook resembled a rainbow trout, but the mind’s eye saw a creature spawned considerably farther to the north. A musty steamer trunk produced the garment suitable for the angler’s invention—a moth-eaten stole that his grandmother had worn. Patches of this he glued to the fish’s bones, after which he presented the trophy as a Christmas gift to his family, complete with a typewritten tale of its adventures under the polar ice cap (mercifully lost). When the ornaments came down, the trophy was relegated to the garage, where insect larvae completed a task begun with a fillet knife, and after 20 years of exile it was deemed bug-free enough for permanent display. Today the fur-bearing fish resides in a place of honor above the mantel, while the man before the fire pens murder mysteries. A professional liar now (his wife might argue the now), he needs only to lift his eyes to see where the mischief began. —Keith McCaffertyDan Saelinger
barrel swivel

A Lasting Connection

I don’t suppose many anglers give much thought to barrel swivels. I never did. Not until I was sitting in a Steak & Shake in Port St. Lucie, Fla., at midnight, rolling a Sampo swivel with double welded rings back and forth in my palm. At the time, it had yet to sink in that I was holding the most meaningful piece of terminal tackle of my life. Two hours earlier, it was the glue that held together a 300-pound mono shock leader and a 5-foot length of heavy steel cable. At the other end of that cable was the 12-foot, 475-pound hammer-head that I was fighting from the beach. For two days and a night, my friend Zach Miller and I had sat on the sand with only a nurse shark to show for our efforts. On our second night, with hope waning, I was packing Miller's truck to head to another spot when I heard him screaming from the other side of the dune. The shark ate at 8:30 p.m. One hour and 45 minutes later, I stood dumbfounded in the lapping surf as Miller released the biggest fish I've ever caught back into the Atlantic. A lot could have gone wrong during that intense tug-of-war, the failure of that swivel being just one possibility. It hangs from my rearview mirror now, and reminds me that the smallest elements of fishing—a strong knot, a sharp hook, a properly greased fly—can spell the difference between heartbreak and glory. —Joe CermeleDan Saelinger
african iron

African Iron

Africa, despite the dreadful encroachments of civilization, is still a place where you can encounter the odd and the unexplainable as easily as you can step in puku poop. I once saw a young man in some remote village, 200 miles from any electricity, pretending to play a perfectly carved copy of a Fender Telecaster guitar. Where did it come from? Who made it? How could he know about such a thing? My own personal mystery is an arrowhead I noticed in 1987, sticking in a tree in the Luangwa River Valley in Zambia. It has a slender, leaf-shaped 4-inch blade and a 3-inch tang. It is a graceful thing, hand-forged from iron, and even today is pretty sharp. That’s what I know about the arrowhead. What I don’t know, and will never know, is: Who shot it? How long? A month before I found it? A year? One hundred years? What was the hunter’s name? What was he hunting? Did he curse his rotten aim? Did his empty stomach growl at him in reproach? Iron is the most common of all the earth’s elements, but this piece of it is special, as it contains the mystery of a continent._ —David E. Petzal_Dan Saelinger
walkie-talkie

A Long-Lost Signal

This place where my family and I have been deer hunting for more than 80 years now, in the Texas Hill Country—the deer pasture—is where I learned to love hunting. I found this walkie-talkie back in the agarita and juniper many years ago. When I asked my dad about it, he said the walkie-talkie was a brief and goofy experiment my grandfather had used to stay in touch with folks back in camp. My father said he hadn’t seen or thought about those walkie-talkies in what felt like a hundred years. Things I don’t know, looking at this old walkie-talkie, which, back in the day, must have been so cutting-edge as to make the latest iPhone seem like the arrowheads that coat these hills where we walk and hunt: What conversations passed through this machine and the air, unrecorded? Was it set down and forgotten? A glimpse of a wide-antlered buck, walking quickly through the brush—the hunter crouching, picking up his rifle, and following… Was my grandfather successful? What he might have thought of as loss—not being able to find where this walkie-talkie was left—is my gain, in the remembering and the imagining, like some signal sent, back then, far into the future. I try now to wonder at those old conversations, in some ways as meaningless—weather, sports, I'm coming in for lunch in a few—as they are the wonderful fabric and matrix of our own brief days. —Rick BassDan Saelinger
duck feathers

Love Feathers

Leave it to the French to come up with a fancy name for a duck's butt. Cul de canard, those sweeping feather loops perched atop a mallard's tail, are the duck hunter's most distinctive trophy, equaled only by the long sprig of a bull pintail. A mature mallard can have two full curls, with three being a real trophy. So emerald in color that they're almost black, the feathers are likely used to attract members of the opposite sex. Back when I was in my bachelor days, I would put the feathers to a similar purpose: More than a few women whom I dated received love letters from me with a cul de canard tucked inside the envelope. At first, the objects of my affection found the feathers romantic—but for any lady who lasted through fall, the tokens became bitter symbols of my absence during duck season. I'm no longer single, but I still pluck the mallard's curls and place them in letters to friends and family. Others get stuck in random places inside my truck or around the house, small reminders of hunting season, and the foolish courtship rituals of both mallards and man. —David DraperDan Saelinger
squirrel tail

A Squirrel Tale

If you pull a certain essay collection from the shelf in my living room, an uncharacteristically bulky bookmark all but forces you to open to a story about squirrel hunting. This doesn’t happen by accident. I find a new bookmark for every book I read, and once I finish the last page it stays inside that book for good. For this hardback, I never second-guessed what the bookmark would be: a preserved squirrel tail. The gray squirrel that once flicked that tail was the first animal I ever killed. My colleague Mike Toth invited me to hunt with him on a WMA near his New Jersey home, and 10 minutes in I spied a squirrel at the base of a tree and fired. We shot one more that day, and Toth generously sent me home with all of the meat—as well as the tail of the first critter. It was a wildly fun day, but once it ended I found myself searching for ways to prolong the experience. Cooking and savoring my first wild-game meal (squirrel potpie) was one way to do that. Deboning and preserving the tail was another. My wife found it a little gross that I used an animal part as a bookmark, but it seemed perfectly natural to me. And now, whenever I open that book to a story about squirrel hunting in Kentucky, the tail takes me back to my own story about squirrel hunting in New Jersey. —Colin KearnsDan Saelinger
axhead

Island Treasure

I was fishing on Lake Nicaragua with a good friend 25 years ago. We caught tons of guapote, a 2- to 3-pound perchlike fish that is scrappy on light tackle and even better on a plate. We stopped for lunch on Isla Zapatera, and soon found ourselves at a picnic table with some natives eating their noonday meal. They invited us to sit down. A few stone artifacts were heaped at the table’s far end. I don’t speak Spanish, but Charlie seemed to be admiring the biggest of these—a large axhead. The guy sitting closest to it said what sounded like the Spanish equivalent of “You like? Here, take it, amigo,” and lobbed it our way. He was aiming for Charlie, but I caught it first. The men laughed. Charlie didn’t. “Hey, man, just looking out for you,” I said. “That was headed for your potato salad.” Eight inches long, it weighs 1 1/2 pounds and is edged all the way around. It sits on my desk right now. Every now and then, I pick it up, pretend I'm hacking away at something, and consider the possibility that its maker is watching from wherever he is. —Bill HeaveyDan Saelinger