Treasures We’ve Lost (and Found) in the Wild

Eleven great stories of prized possessions we’ve left in, and taken from, the outdoors

Illustration of a folding Case knife.
Illustration of a folding Case knife. Polly Becker

1. A Rare Case

I’ve lost just about every knife I’ve ever owned. The one exception, so far, is a “Coke-bottle” Case XX. It’s a bigger knife than I prefer to use and carry. But that’s probably why it keeps hanging around. Every time I have to pack a knife for a hunting trip, I look for one of my favorites, and it’s nowhere to be found. That’s when I open my desk drawer, grab the Case, and toss it into my bag.

I got it at a yard sale in Upstate New York, and the former owner wouldn’t budge on the price. I didn’t blame him. It was in near-perfect condition when he sold it to me. Since then, I’ve put a nice patina on the carbon-steel blade and a few dents in the scales, and I was starting to appreciate it as it got older.

But then, on a waterfowling trip to Maryland, I lost it along with a sharpening stone. We shot some ducks there and cleaned them on the porch of a rental house. When I put it down on the deck to wash my hands, I must have left it. When I got home and couldn’t find the knife, I resigned myself to the fact that it was finally gone. Which was OK with me.

When you lose as much stuff as I do, you realize that you’re ­really just holding onto things temporarily. Somebody out there would find and enjoy my knife, just as I’ve found things before. While not as practical as a knife, I found a worn-out horseshoe in the West Texas desert that conjured thoughts of Blood ­Meridian, and I once found a Russian Army hat that I still break out for my coldest late-season deer hunts. My Case would wind up in some kid’s cigar box full of treasures, or in the back pocket of a waterfowler visiting the Eastern Shore.

Instead, it made its way back to me. Two weeks after the hunt, I used a slick new automatic folder to open a package from a friend. He’d been on the Maryland trip but left the house a day later. Inside the package, there were two objects: the sharpening stone and my Case, still dirty from cleaning ducks. After I washed the blood off, I dried it and put it back in my desk drawer—where it still sits, waiting for the inevitable. —Matthew Every

2. The Katwalk

Years ago, I casually asked a friend who owned an upscale drift-boat business if I could have the rotting wooden hull that had been sitting in his shop’s side yard for a decade or more. He agreed, but only if I promised never to bring it back.

I spent the next two years of my life learning the dos and don’ts of ­wooden-boat restoration. It was equal parts fun and frustration, and a ton of work. By the late summer of 2014, I was ready to name her—when the unthinkable happened. My 26-year-old sister died after a drowning accident. She hung on for a week in the hospital but eventually succumbed. Her name was Kathryn Walker, but everyone called her Katwalk. So that became the old boat’s name.

For the next few months I worked feverishly to complete her. The job helped push away my grief. By December, she was ready, and in a patch of open water on a small lake, my wife and daughter and I took The Katwalk on her inaugural float. She was perfect. For a little while.

On the way home, as if in slow motion, I watched the GMC Yukon run the red light and T-bone us. The windows exploded, my wife and little girl screamed, and in an instant we were all hanging upside down by our seat belts. The impact flipped our Jeep and obliterated The Katwalk.

I burned most of the wreckage down to ashes and scattered them in the river where my sister had had her accident. But the stern of The Katwalk now rests on my back porch, made into a gliding rocking chair, where on summer evenings my two daughters take turns ­rocking. Sometimes, they ask me about their aunt. —Tim Romano

3. A Ring Back

I swear the dummy ring they put on my finger to check the size felt snug. But a month later, I picked up my fancy ­titanium-­carbide wedding band, and it was too big—not so big that it would slide off constantly, but just loose enough that I knew I’d always have to be mindful. Fancy ­titanium-­carbide, it turns out, can’t be resized. Nor was there enough time before the big day to get a new one. So, in the interest of not further stressing out my bride-to-be, I kept the ring and shut my mouth.

For a year, that ring stayed on my finger despite some close calls. Then, on a cold October day, I had an itch to catch some smallmouths. As I stepped into a riffly section of the Raritan River, the soft bank gave way, and I was suddenly falling face-first. I put my knees down and my hands out to brace myself, and aside from a little water down the waders, there seemed to be no harm done.

My buddy and I were probably halfway through the 2-mile wade when I noticed that there was no ring on my finger. I knew exactly where I’d lost it, but I also knew that the water there was fast and fairly deep. It could easily have been swept downstream. Or it could have flown off during my fall and landed halfway across the river. It didn’t matter. We had to try. When we finally got back the scene of the nosedive, I wasn’t confident. But it turns out that fancy titanium-­carbide is also heavy, and there, perfectly centered on a rock in the middle of the riffle, was my glinting ring. I didn’t cry, but it was a near thing.

For our next anniversary, my wife bought me a cheap wedding band that actually fits. I’ve been wearing it for nine years while the real one lives in the safety of my sock drawer. —Joe Cermele

Illustration of a folding statue of a religious icon.
Illustration of a folding statue of a religious icon. Polly Becker

4. Pop’s Charm

Here’s how I imagine it happened: I’m leaning over the water, so focused on reviving the trout in my hand that I fail to notice when the charm slips out of a pocket in my fly vest and plunks into the stream. That, or it’s knocked loose when I trip on a rock wading to my next spot. All I know for certain is that I lost it while trout fishing, and once I realized it was gone, I felt sick.

I say “charm” because I don’t really know what else to call the thing. It was a 1-inch-tall pewter statue of the Virgin Mary that fit snugly inside a two-piece brass capsule. My grandmother Gram gave it to me, but it had belonged to my grandfather Pop.

He’d kept it with him throughout his service in World War II, then carried it in his pocket, mixed with loose change, every day for the rest of his life. My mom has told me how much she loved the charm when she was a little girl. She’d sneak it off her dad’s dresser and play with it, crafting tiny houses for the Mary statue. But Pop would always notice when it went missing, and would always ask for it back.

I was given the charm a few years after we lost Pop, so I never got to ask him about it. But he obviously treasured it. You don’t guard something that small so closely for decades unless you value it enormously. I only wish I had valued it half as much as he did. Maybe then, I’d still have it.

A few years ago, I went online to see if I could find another charm like Pop’s and was surprised by how quickly my search turned up a match. A week or so after I purchased it, the ­second-chance charm arrived in the mail. I had no intention of putting this one in my fly vest, though. Instead, I gave it to my mom.

I also imagine this: The charm lightly falls through the water just as the rainbow swims from my hand. Given its size and ­tarnished-brass color, it blends right in with the river stones once it hits bottom and has never caught the eye of another angler.

Which means the charm isn’t entirely lost because it’s still there, somewhere. And I can return to that stream and fish, knowing a part of Pop is there with me. —Colin Kearns

5. The Gun That Got Away

One of the best things about being a writer is that you can write about your mistakes. Monetizing failure eases the pain. This is Bill Heavey’s entire business model, but it works for me sometimes too. After I let a Marlin Model 90 o/u get away from me, I wrote about it.

The Model 90 was a sturdy budget gun, made from the 1930s to the ’50s. It had no top rib, and many lacked side ribs as well, making the barrels feel much lighter and livelier than an inexpensive o/u’s barrels should. I know exactly how well the Model 90 handles because I had one in my hands, a clean 16-gauge from the early ’50s, with a $400 price tag dangling from the trigger guard.

Putting it back in the rack, I left to give myself time to think it over, as if there was anything to think about. When I came back to buy it a day later, it was gone. There was nothing to do but let it inspire the Field & Stream story “10 Guns I Let Get Away.”

A year later, the email came as a complete surprise. “I’m the guy who bought the Model 90 you wrote about,” it read. “I’m selling it to help pay for a target gun. Want it for $400?” The first rule of second chances is don’t blow them. This time, there was no thinking, just grabbing, and the Model 90 sits where it belongs, in my gun safe, ready for next fall. —Phil Bourjaily

Illustration of a fishing rod and reel.
Illustration of a fishing rod and reel. Polly Becker

6. The Disappearing Rod

From first grade through my junior year of high school, I spent pretty much every weekend on my dad’s 28-foot cabin cruiser, which was docked in Atlantic City, New Jersey. My friend Tommy’s family had a boat a few slips down, and he was always around.

I could occupy myself all day by fishing around the marina. Tommy, on the other hand, was a bounce-off-the-walls sort of kid. He liked fishing, but only if he caught something in the first five minutes.

One weekend, when I was probably 10, Tommy showed up with a brand-new heavy-action spinning combo, and he couldn’t wait to use it to soak mackerel at the end of our dock. After six minutes, nothing touched his bait, so he asked if I’d watch his rod while he ran back to his boat for his Game Boy and a soda, and he laid the outfit flat on the dock. I told him I would, and not a minute after he left, I saw that rod tip twitch twice before the entire combo was yanked right into the harbor.

When Tommy came back and asked where his rod went, I panicked and blurted, “I have no idea, man.” Even worse, I said: “I’m pretty sure you took it with you.” Tommy pondered this with Game Boy in hand, seemed to conclude that it made sense, and walked back to his boat to check.

For the rest of the weekend, the mystery of Tommy’s disappearing rod was the talk of the marina. His dad was not happy, and I did feel bad about what happened. But not as much as I wanted to know how big the striper or bluefish had to be to pull that heavy combo off the dock in a split second. —J. C.

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7. Outfit Overboard

An angler’s first non-Snoopy rod inspires a boundless anticipation, and that’s what my son, Brody, seemed to be feeling as he leaned into his new spinning outfit and flung out tube jigs from midship on my buddy Stan’s boat.

“There’s one!” Stan said, hooking a smallmouth that jumped and twisted in a black blur. Wrestling it to the boat, he winked at me and said, “Brody, net this fish for me, will you?”

Brody reeled up and set his rod on the bow, with the tube jig dangling in the water. He grabbed the net and scrambled to the stern to scoop up Stan’s bass. I took a pic of the two anglers, grinning.

But when Brody returned, his rod was gone. It took a minute to sink in, as we drifted over a huge shoal in 20 feet of water, a half mile off the shore of Lake Ontario. But soon Brody was in tears. And Stan nearly was too.

My friend has never been one to give up on a fishing hole, though. He threw over a marker buoy. “Maybe we can catch it,” he said, and turned the boat back up to the beginning of the drift. We plunked out some jigging spoons with treble hooks and dragged them along the gravel. On the second pass, I hooked what felt like weeds but turned into monofilament, and then I could see the rod rising through the ­water. I hand­lined the outfit to the boat, and when I pulled it from the water, it pulled back.

I handed it to Brody, who reeled in his first fish on the new outfit—a 2-pound bass that had grabbed the tube jig. This time, Stan did the netting. —Will Ryan

8. Memories of Dad

Ten years ago, my sister and I went out to scatter our father’s ashes on the farm where we grew up and where I learned to hunt. Neither of us had had a good ­relationship with him as adults. ­Divorce, alcohol, and his new family made it hard. We looked around for a meaningful spot and came to the stump of the cottonwood where he had once built my sister a swing.

It seemed as good a place as any to leave his remains. “Thanks for making me a swing, Dad,” said my sister, not knowing what else to say. I didn’t know either. We drove home.

Three weeks later, I was in Alberta, Canada, hunting a pea field swarming with ducks and geese. Toward the end of the morning, I sailed a goose and thought I saw it fall in the distance. So I took the outfitter’s Lab and went looking. We didn’t find the goose. On the way back to the spread, the dog left my side, rummaged in the standing peas, and brought me a freshly killed drake pintail that must have fallen unnoticed during one of the morning’s many volleys. It eased my disappointment over the goose. I took it, scratched the Lab’s head, and told him he was a good dog.

Maybe it was the simple fact of holding something dead, its body still retaining a trace of warmth. Maybe it was the realization that waterfowl hunting was something my father and I once shared, something that mattered a great deal to both of us despite our differences. Maybe, too, it’s because I knew I wouldn’t have been there at all if he hadn’t introduced me to this world of sunrises, dogs, and ducks. I lost the goose but found a duck—and all the tears for my father I hadn’t been able to find at home. —P.B.

Illustration of an alligator.
Illustration of an alligator. Polly Becker

9. Downed Duck

Waterfowlers from all over visit Florida to get their mottled duck. And here was mine, rocketing past some lazily flapping roseate spoonbills, then banking hard and backpedaling. I never touched him on my first shot. I was too excited. But my second sent him skidding to a stop, head down.

As I waded over to pick him up, though, the drake lifted his bill and kicked so fast that he looked like a ­remote-­controlled race boat speeding away. I centered him in a spray of shot, but he just swam through it and hopped over a levee. With a deep canal and access road on the other side, he had no place to go. I’d just sneak over the bank and finish him.

But the levee was a clamor of brush, impenetrable except for this nice wide trail I happened to notice. It seemed a little slick, oddly oily, but so conveniently placed that I just marched right up. That’s when I heard a commotion so loud and frantic, it was like someone had pushed a cow into the water. I ran to the top of the levee and stood in a clearing where all the grass was matted down…and right there, just a few feet out in the canal, was the head of a huge alligator poking above the surface, brown feathers floating all around.

When I got back to the check-in station, I told the warden. He knew the spot and the gator.

“That’s a big one,” he said.

“Do gators eat hunters’ ducks?”

“Oh, yeah,” he said. “Happens all the time.”

“OK,” I whined, “but do they eat the first and only mottled duck a guy will probably ever kill?”

He shook his head and laughed. He said he was sorry that I’d lost such a prized bird. On the other hand, he suggested—as kindly as it is possible to do—that any Yankee dumb enough to walk up an obvious gator trail and stand in the middle of an 11-foot bull’s favorite sunning spot should be happy that the beast had just had his breakfast. —Dave Hurteau

Illustration of a fishing lure.
Illustration of a fishing lure. Polly Becker

10. The Old Midge-Oreno

Entrusting his tackle to me was not among my ­father’s wiser decisions. As a teenager, I took senseless risks, like hopping trains up and down Cross Creek, where I fished for smallmouth bass. Passing a productive stretch of water, I would toss the rod out of the car, then, having forced my own hand, launch myself into space.

A fishing trip in those days required several leaps of faith. First, you had to believe that there were bass, not a given where coal mines leaked toxins into the headwaters. Second, you had to hope that the rod wouldn’t break when tossed. And third, you had to pray that you wouldn’t be killed jumping off the train after it.

It’s fitting that the day I lost my father’s favorite bass plug was a Sunday, for faith would be needed. The lure was a South Bend Midge-Oreno that Dad cast with a bamboo rod and Meek No. 2 free-spool casting reel, a combination that he figured had caught a thousand smallmouths. He was so accurate with that plug that he could clip the heads off dandelions in the yard. I would develop an educated thumb myself, and on the morning in question, I had hooked a bass that broke the braided Dacron and jumped, trying to throw the plug. Heartbroken, I hopped the train home, then drove to church, where I could not meet my father’s eyes. While Reverend Crenshaw droned away, a vision came to me. It was the Midge-Oreno, floating in the shallows.

Driving back to the creek in my Sunday best, I waded around for hours and was close to giving up when I spotted the gaudy colors that my father had painted the plug. There it was, floating with a snippet of line at the eye, exactly as I had pictured it while sitting in the church pew. I still tie it on to separate flowers from their stems, but it has earned its retirement, and the bass in Cross Creek, if any remain, have been safe from the old Midge-Oreno for almost 50 years.

Dad, rest his soul, was never the wiser. —Keith McCafferty

11. Grouse Surprise

This is one of those tales where at the end, you say “true story.” Not because it helps, really, but just because you feel like no one will believe you otherwise.

In any case, I’ve shot a pile of ruffed grouse and never found them to be hardy birds. A pellet or two is often all it takes to make one flutter down. But this grouse buckled at my shot and kept climbing, over the scraggly cedars and through the wispy tops of the bare birches. I should have shot again, but I just stood there dumbly, waiting for the thing to drop from the sky. Instead, it did the Funky Chicken across a field and into a grove of spire-topped firs.

I hiked over, figuring that if I slipped in under the cathedral of boughs and stopped every few steps to let the snowy silence of the place gather, the bird would rocket out of the treetops, like winter grouse do. I combed the whole grove and the woods all around. The bird had disappeared—poof. Like magic, which no one would put past a grouse.

I gave up the search and decided to head home, but not before hitting one last nearby thicket, a finger of thorn apples heavily draped in grapevines, where there’s usually a bird or two if the sun is shining. I was almost there, trudging through the fluffy snow of the field, when I heard a muffled rustling, and then…poof!

A small geyser of powder erupted at my feet, leaving crystalline dust hanging in the air and sparkling. And in the middle of it, my grouse reappeared, winging away and still doing the Funky Chicken. I’d seen grouse explode from snow roosts before, just never in my face. I was too mesmerized to shoot, and as it turned out, I didn’t have to. Over the thicket, the bird fell out of the sky, spent.

When I walked over, the grouse lay motionless, head down and half buried in the snow. I reached into the brush and was just able close my fingertips on its backside and thread it through the vines. I was thinking, That is the craziest thing I’ve ever seen in the woods…

Then the grouse flew out of my hand. And I shot it.

True story. —D.H.

This story originally appeared in Field & Stream Vol. 125, No. 2.