Saturday, September 30, 2017

Flint and Steel, Trout Bush Meal.

   Recently I was offered a challenge on an internet bushcraft forum by one of the members there to catch at least a 10" trout and to cook it in the field with out using a pan of any kind, plus the fire that will be used to cook said trout must be created via the the flint and steel method. Not to be confused with the ferro rod method, which is often referred to as a "fire steel". It was to be done by using the real deal...a piece of hand forged steel striking a hard stone edge to make a spark, which hopefully will ignite into a flame. The process is a little more complicated than that, but that's the gist of it.

   With only days left for the inland trout season, time was of the essence. The upcoming forecast didn't look good either with the threat of a week long series of thunder storms, and I didn't know how much free time I'd have after work so I decided to head out.

  The weather the past two weeks here in the Northland have been unusually hot. We almost always get a warm spell in September that we call an "Indian Summer", but we've had a couple of weeks of temperatures in the high 70's and even a number of days in the high 80's. Today it was forecast to be in the mid-80's with moderate humidity so I woke up before sunrise to pack up my gear and drove out to my destination in hopes to beat some of the heat. I decided to wear my light weight nylon shirt and pants to help with the cooling effects of my perspiration that I knew would be soaking me throughout the day. This is the same clothing set up that has worked well during time I spent in the various jungles I've been to. Top it all off with the classic boonie hat and I was ready for some hot weather adventure.

   I figured this was supposed to be a challenge so I chose to fish an area that was new to me. I had walked past this stretch of small water numerous times during past bird seasons but I have never fished it. Last year while grouse hunting, I witnessed a father and son pull a few trout out of a hole right off the small bridge that crossed the stream during the final day of that year's trout season. I wanted to see what this stream had in store for me, so I figured this would fit right in with the challenge to fish some new water and scout it out for future trips.

   With grouse season in swing I decided tote along my compact "tacticool" .410. It's probably one of the most ridiculous looking guns I own, but it's great as compact hunting/ survival type weapon. I've have taken numerous heads of small game with it and often tote it on camping trips. Grouse weren't my primary objective, but I knew if I didn't take a gun I'd see at least six birds just sitting around looking at me. You know how that goes. Besides, the little .410 would be nice and compact compared to my other shot guns. This would be a huge benefit because the foliage around this stream is ultra thick and I knew I would be navigating through a tag alder jungle the whole time.

   I arrived at the bridge and parked my vehicle on the side of the old railroad grade. No grouse were spotted on the way in and that didn't surprise me. It was early yet and a lot of foliage was still up. Plus with this heat, the birds were probably still deep in the swamps.

   I'm normally not a bait fisherman when it comes to trout, but on this trip I was going to be using the ever reliable garden hackle. This stream is too small and brush choked to effectively fish it with lures so drowning worms was the way to go. Besides, I figured I'd add to the challenge and see if I could catch some trout on a small, hobo style fishing reel kit gifted to me by a friend. His kids make them and he gave me one to field test. I used it earlier in the year during a hike in the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness and caught a number of small trout with it up there. I rigged up the reel with a small aberdeen hook and one BB sized split shot. I lobbed the line into the pool just off the bridge to see what would happen. In seconds the line started to move unnaturally cutting across the current so I knew a fish had taken the bait. I set the hook and played in a creek chub. Not what I was after, but the little survival reel/fishing kit did it's job.

   I hooked a few more chubs over the next 10 minutes and was beginning to wonder if any trout were active in the pool. Or if there even were any in it for that matter. After about 2 more chubs I hooked into something that fought completely different and I knew it had to be a brookie. I seen it darting around as I pulled the hand line in and I could make out the white the edged fins which told me my hunch was correct.

   Smokey the Bear told me it was only 8" so back in the water it went. The first trout of the day was a couple inches short of my goal but I knew they were here so maybe I could pull it off. Being a small stream most of the fish are probably going to be in the 7" to 9" range. I have found this to be true in almost every small stream I have fished up here. Of course there could a be a monster lurking in any small creek but that's the exception, not the rule. That was another reason I chose to fish this river. I knew getting a trout 10" or better might take some time. Sure I could have hit one of my big fish spots on another river and maybe pulled out a foot long brookie or bigger brown if I was lucky, but I wanted to push the challenge theme and see what I could pull off.

   A couple of drifts later I was rewarded with another little brookie. This one was smaller than the last. Even though the fish was small it was nice to catch such a little gem. I know these are probably pure native strain and that's a rarity in North America now and days. You usually have to fish tiny water like this to catch these beautiful little natives. I'm fortunate to live in an area where such fish still exist all over in abundance.

   Soon after releasing the above fish I hooked another little trout. I tried to get a photo of it in the water as I pulled it in. It's quite difficult to get decent footage like this by yourself and even more so when using this hand line, so I apologize for the some of the shots being out of focus. Fish are always flopping about and the camera is usually being held at an awkward angle, often over drop off  and above water most of the time. This makes action shots dicey most of the time.


   At this point I was getting nothing more other than some tiny chubs and I basically covered all the water that was with in reach of what I could toss out using the hobo reel. The little survival fishing kit sure did the job. I caught a few trout and about three times as many chubs. If I was lost and needed food, I would have had a full belly in little time. I packed away the hobo reel and took up my Berkley Cherrywood ultralight, decked out with a Pflueger reel. This is fine small water trout set up. 

   I walked back to the car an get my pack, hip boots and the gun. It was time to walk the stream. This is what It was like once you were off the road. You had about 4 feet of visibility. Usually I don't mind being in thick vegetation if that's the case, but a couple of years ago a lady was fishing near this spot and had the uncanny feeling that she was being watched. She couldn't shake the feeling and decide to walk back to the road, and as she did she looked up and there watching her from the bridge was a mountain lion. This is the very spot I'm at now. Of course this story keeps playing through my head as I walk into the tag alder thicket hemmed in by tall grass.

My view of the river.
   What you see is what I have to navigate through. Thick brush and grass everywhere. Fortunately there were occasional openings along the bank created by beavers. I spied once such opening and made way toward it, snaking myself through the foliage. The opening was on a nice bend where the stream starts to meander. The bend looked deep and held the promise that there could be some trout hidden under it's banks. Like all banks, they were hard to break into, but I managed to flip a cast exactly where I had hoped and waited to see what kind of treasures I could haul out of it's tangled vault. It didn't take long for the line to signal the tell tale movement from a fish. I set the hook and felt some good resistance. This was a keeper. I played the fish and lobbed it up on shore as it got close.

   Smokey said it was 10" on the nose.


Phase one of the challenge completed. 

   I re-baited the hook and casted to another spot on the far side of the bank. It didn't take long for a second trout to hit. This one fought well and I was happy to see another keeper on the end of my line.

   The humped backed male measured out to 10 1/2". Phase one of the challenge was accomplished, times two! 


With two trout in the bag I was wondering how many more I might encounter now that I was off to parts where few people, if any tred. I flipped in a few more casts and caught a few more small trout and chubs that I released. I could hear the gurgle of running water so I left the bend to seek out some new turf.

The Bend

   I made my way through the tangle and seen much of the river was too shallow to allow for any decent fishing attempts. I kept walking along to reach the source of the running water I could hear when suddenly I fell. As in, "fell through the earth". My brain locked up and I was confused because I didn't notice anything but solid ground, and surely not this hole that I was now thigh deep in. I expected to be sloshing in water but the bottom was oddly dry. I clambered my way out and took another step and as I stood up... the earth started to collapse all around me! I jumped and ran, then made sure I was on solid ground. It was weird. That whole section of ground I was on seemed to be over some kind of small sink hole. Perhaps it was the remains if an old muskrat burrow? So now I cautiously walked along the river bank expecting to fall into a pit every few steps.

   Pitfalls aside, not much of the rest of the river looked very fishable. I found the source of the running water and it was a small beaver dam. I was hoping it was going to contain a decently deep pool behind it, but it was rather shallow and only yielded a few creek chubs to me. I made my way back to start phase two of my challenge.

   I walked back to my vehicle, ditched my hip boots and dropped off the larger trout into a cooler. My pants were soaked with sweat but I knew the nylon material would dry out quickly. I gulped down some water and decided to walk to trail I knew was near by. I'd cook the trout up somewhere off to the side of that trail. I didn't want to cook, let alone make fire in all of that thick, suffocating vegetation along the stream.

  The walk to the trail was uneventful and no game birds were spotted. It was starting to get windy and when I was putting my boots at the vehicle, my SUV's dash display had told me it was 85 degrees out. I was roasting, and was thankful for the breeze. I hadn't noticed it while along the river.


   Many times over the years I have shot grouse along the tops these ridges that line the defunct railroad grade I was taking to the trail I had in mind. But there would be none on the tops today.

  I reached the trail and started down it. I soon began looking for a suitable place to make a fire. I wanted something sheltered from the wind and in a spot that offered me all the fire making resources I needed. I soon found what I was looking for and set up my "lunch camp". 

Just look at those classic lines on that fine upland shotgun.


   On this trip I took along my Buck 119 Special. One reason I took it, is that this year happens to be the knife's 75th anniversary. I have had this blade for about 20 years and have used it on two different continents in a range of environments that include jungles, frozen boreal forests, mountains, deserts and plains. It has served me well in all these places. The other reason it tagged along on this trip is due to the fact that big, toothy critters roam in this area and a decent sized knife seems to give me some degree of psychological comfort, if nothing else.


   To get a fire going by using a flint and steel requires two critical components. The first component is a suitable material to catch the spark created by the steel when struck with the sharp edge of a hard rock. Finding a such a spark catching material that is unrefined in nature is almost impossible. So to facilitate this need, one packs in some char cloth or other charred material with their steel striker. Char cloth is just the carbon remains of a cotton based fabric. You can make it by super heating the cloth within a tin that doesn't permit much oxygen to get at the material causing it to partially gasify, and leaves behind only the carbon that was contained in the material. This process sounds all high-tec but it's funny to think that people have been doing this for over a thousand years. Once a spark hits the charred material it grows into a sort of spreading ember.

  The second critical component is making a proper tinder source that the ember will ignite. Though the ember gets hot, it just doesn't burn like a flame and wont readily combust materials like a lit match would. Much care is needed for the proper tinder nest to be prepped to accept the embers heat, that will hopefully lead to fire. The heat of the day will help with this step. The humidity in the air and materials will be the wild card.

   I got busy making my tinder nest from some thin, dead grass and crumbled dead ferns into the center. There was one component that I was hoping to find above all else. And there it was, right behind my set up.

   The yellow birch. Nature's tinder store.

   I constructed my tinder bundle with a core made of the yellow birch bark and staged up some different sized kindling. The base of the fire lay was made of some balsam boughs to keep the tinder bundle off the moist earth. All materials were gathered within about a 12 foot radius of my fire lay.

Firesteel and tinder all prepped and ready to go


   I grabbed the fire steel striker along with the piece chert I gathered from the shores of Lake Superior, and placed a piece of char cloth right along jagged edge of the chert. I struck with a with a couple of deft blows and a spark quickly took hold onto the char cloth. I gently blew on the spark and the glowing lines of the moving ember traveled like crimson lightening along the material.


   I placed the char cloth into the center of the tinder nest and blew on it to enhance the ember in hopes of igniting the center of the nest. I'm not sure if there was too much moisture in the center nest material, or I just took too long to insert the char cloth due to taking a photo, or a combination of both, but the first attempt just yielded a little smoke and didn't ignite anything before the char cloth was spent.

   With the camera down and all my focus on the task at hand, I struck a spark on another square of char cloth and folded the nest around it. I started to concentrate some blown air to the center and could feel the heat building up within my hands. Soon a thick cloud of smoke was building up engulfing the nest and I knew I was on the home stretch. With a faint "poof" the material combusted into flame, and I piled on the remainder of the birch bark on to help it along. Fire had been made just as the mountain men had done nearly 180 years prior, and Phase two of my mission was complete.


   With the fire now established, I got to preparing my lunch. I gutted and rinsed the brook trout and added some slashes on the sides. I do this to help expedite the cooking process and it also gives access to more of the actual exposed flesh to absorb the wood smoke flavor and seasoning, of which I added a few dashes of Cavenders. No need to be too uncivilized when cooking in the bush. In my opinion, Cavenders Greek Seasoning makes the best camping seasoning you can take with you. It goes great with everything I have ever tried it on and it's a staple in my cook kit. Try it if you have never used it and tell me what you think.


  One of the stipulations of this challenge was no pan could be used to cook the fish so I went the paleolithic route and just utilized a black cherry sapling in the green to act as a skewer.

   My coal bed was now perfect. One doesn't need to make a huge blaze for this kind of bush cooking. I find I can effectively make a micro fire like this to cook everything I need with very little hassle. You get a quick, hot bed of coals, and you don't need to scrounge forever to find fuel. Plus the fire is easy to maintain and extinguish if you need to leave in a hurry.

   I stuck the skewer into the earth and adjusted the trout over the coal bed. As I watched the fish cook I sat down and took in the days events and felt a sense of accomplishment at completing this challenge. I quite enjoyed the quest and it helped to get me out in nature to enjoy all of it's splendor.

    It's the little things in life like this that I find very satisfying. When a man focuses in on such endeavours in the wilderness all of the issues and clutter of the modern world melt away into the ripples of a quite stream or become faded by the brilliance of the autumn leaves.


   I eagerly watched as the fished cooked. It's juices now dripping into the coals that hissed with each drop. I was getting hungry.


   The fish was ready, and I couldn't wait to taste some of the finest eating to be had in these woods.

Bon appetit!


All done!

It was a fitting end to my 2017 inland trout season.
I enjoyed the day's events and I hoped you enjoyed me sharing it. Thanks for taking the time to look.

Friday, September 29, 2017

The Rush Of The Flush.

   I've always enjoyed hunting ruffed grouse. Taking long walks on old forest roads and woods trails in the fall is about as quintessential as it gets for a north woods autumn activity. The air is usually crisp in the mornings and the sweet smell of fallen leaves triggers some spark in the recesses of my brain to ignite the flames of the hunt. Once lit, this fire will burn well into the winter months.

  Grouse hunting, like all hunting, is full of anticipation. However in my opinion, no hunting can compare to the constant anticipation and thrill one gets from a good day in the grouse woods. You never know when one of these birds will suddenly explode right out from any direction around you at any moment. I once posted a story about a grouse hunt and a friend of mine who is in the U.S. Navy stated that one of the things he missed the most from back home was "The rush of the flush". I never heard a more appropriate term for it. The rush of the flush. This is what keeps me coming back to these birds.

   I love that sudden explosion of a grouse flush that gives you mere nano seconds to make what seems like a thousands decisions. These decisions must be executed somehow into one fluid, physical movement that coincides with a blurred visual target your brain must engage. Then you need to adjust to that blur of feathers to somehow line up a shot in less time than it takes a dropped shotgun shell from your hand to hit the ground. Some times my brain locks up. The fury of the flush startles me even though I'm trying to anticipate it for as long as I can. The moment is then lost and I have found I'm half froze in my attempt to raise the gun and the bird is gone. Other times It seems as if my brain is on autopilot. These are the times that I even impress myself. A bird flushes, and everything slows down. With out evening trying, I some how swing onto the seemingly slow motion bird, fire a barely audible shot at it and watch as it tumbles from the air with out even realizing what I just pulled off.

Some days in the grouse woods you can do wrong. You make the impossible shots that take birds with in feet off the ground on a flush, or nail a double in tight cover. Other times you may have been better off staying home. You might miss three straight away flushes in a row, or flush six birds, but somehow never even see one of them. 

   You never know how the day will go on a grouse hunt. Also, you never what you will see. I never cared for road hunting for birds. Lots of people I know do it, but I like hiking and being immersed in nature so walking is the thing for me. And by putting on the miles in the grouse woods I have seen some amazing things that people cruising around in their trucks will never know. Fresh moose, wolf and bear tracks in the mud. A coyote that was killed by a wolf. An injured or sick great horned owl. A close encounter with a coyote I tried to shoot from an ambush. The 'yote ended up charging past me as I had to side step it so it wouldn't hit me. How my shot never connected with it I'll never know. All of these things and so many more have been seen or experienced only because I chose to walk along the less beaten path for many miles while pursuing these birds.

    Soon I'll be off to wander the trails in hopes of flushing my favorite game bird. Long walks amongst the falling the leaves is what I'm now craving. The weather has finally started to cool down this fall and hopefully some of the leaves have been knocked off the low foliage with the high winds we've frequently been having.

From hot weather to cold, grouse action can be had in any conditions.

  This year the ruffed grouse population level is slated to be at middle range of their ten year cycle. However, my region has experienced a few cold, wet springs in a row which do nothing to help grouse chick and egg survival rates. The past few years have been dismal for action and I have encountered a scant few birds. Last year was the most terrible season I have ever had, with only a handful of flushes for many miles walked. Hopefully this year things have improved. Time will tell.

See you on the grouse trails!

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Fine Fall Trout, and the Folly of a Reel.


 Fall trout fishing can be some of the finest if you hit the right conditions. The fish love to binge eat just ahead the fall spawn and are apt to strike at lures again after being insectivores for most of the last couple of months. As the hatches wind down, minnow feeding once again, ramps up.

   There are a few things that can hamper autumn river fishing though, and a couple of those things are flocks of migrating fish eating ducks like mergansers and too many leaves flowing with the current under the surface. At the end of the season it's not unusual to snag a number of leaves on every cast. The window for good stream fishing here in the Northland can be short depending on the peak of the fall colors and the inevitable leaf drop that will soon follow.

   I wanted to beat the leaf drop this year and hit a couple of holes that regularly produce nice fish for me. It was a beautiful early fall day with temps in the mid 60's and with steady barometric pressure I was anticipating some good action. I didn't get a chance to get out in the morning but thought the afternoon might be productive, so off I went.

   This time of year I'm always on the look out for mushrooms. No matter what I'm doing in the woods my 'shroom radar is on and this trip was no exception. I wasn't disappointed on the hike in because I stumbled across a nice trove of chanterelles. I made a mental note of there whereabouts for collection on the way back and continued on to my destination.

   I arrived at the first spot where I wanted to test my luck. I always try to pause, while hidden in the tree line above the river for a short time to observe any stretch of water I'm going to fish. Especially if the water isn't high and turbid. Many times I have done this and have noticed trout feeding or even swimming around. After watching said fish's habits, I can plan out my approach to make an unseen cast to my quarry.  Today I noticed no activity so I made my way down the river bank and slid, slowly into the water. Conditions looked good.

  A precise first cast revealed nothing and two more casts evoked what felt like a slight "bump" that may have been a fish. I gave it some time and ran my spinner through the same current line and felt the strike I was waiting for. A solid hook up revealed a nice brook trout that was keen for the fight. I played the fish out and netted the beautiful male all ablaze in it's fall spawning regalia. Much like the vibrant leaves, the char's skin can evoke a sense of awe when gazed upon in the fall.

13" of magnificent brookie

  I took a few photos and added the chunky char to my creel. The day was already a success with just that fish.

   Back in the river, I turned my attention to the far side of the pool and promptly hooked into a nice fish on my second cast. The fish pulled and strained against the line. It was a good one, but what? As I fought it in closer it rolled and I seen it was nice brown. I made sure to play it out enough before trying to net it. Fish number two was in hand and the makings a fine trout meal for family was coming to fruition. I marveled at the male's yellow and mocha coloration with cream rimmed dots. Another fantastic looking trout.

16" of mocha brown

  With two nice fish in the creel, It was time to head to the next hole.

I took in the sights,sounds and smells of the woods as I hiked along. The weight of the creel jauntily swaying as I walked.

Large white cedar

   Upon arriving at my second destination I surveyed the water again and noticed some trout jumping and rising on the far side of the river. I waded in and got myself situated by a large rock and started casting. It didn't take long for a strike and after a short fight I had a small brookie in hand. I quickly unhooked it and released it back into it's copper colored, liquid world.

   I resumed casting around the submerged boulders that were laying before me and was jolted by a savage hit. I set the hook and my reel screamed. This one had shoulders. I watched my line bounce in the sunlight as the fish bulldogged it's way around the rocks, trying to burrow it's self in some hidden recess that only it knew. As I tried to control the fish I watched as my line started to rise from the was going to jump. I started to time the lowering of my rod tip in time with the ascending line and watched as the fish broke the surface in it's bid for freedom. As the golden yellow hue of the brown trout breached, I was taken aback at how large the fish was, or I should say, wasn't.

   It was a nice fish, but they way it was fighting belied it's size. I cleared it from the boulder field and it still had plenty of spunk so I played out in front my rock. I guided it along in a series of figure eights so I could attempt to net it with out it making too much fuss. After what felt like minutes, I landed my catch. A hefty female brown with nice golden yellow flanks. She was the shieldmaiden of her kind that day.


Hefty 16" brown trout

    Elated to have taken three fine fish that afternoon, and with this one in the bag I was done keeping for the day. Here on out it would be catch and release.

  I continued assaulting the hole and had a few follow ups and short strikes from some brookies in the 10 to 11 inch range. One of which literally swam circles around my lure but never touched it. With the action slowing down in this hole I moved off towards a set of rock strewn rapids to see what they had in store.

  A few casts amongst the rocks coaxed out an eager little brown. I took some quick photos of it before letting it go.

     A subsequent retrieve through the same area evoked another hit and as I set the hook I felt and heard a resounding "SNAP!!" I thought I had broke my rod. For a second I was dumbfounded because nothing felt right in my hands. The reel, the rod, the balance of it was all wrong. It took a moment for me to realize my reel just snapped right off of my fishing pole! I was flabbergasted. My brain quickly came back to reality and I remembered that I had tried to set the hook on a fish that might still be attached to my line. I desperately tried hand lining what line there was out there but soon realized there was no fish at the other end.

   I crawled up the bank to inspect what just exactly had happened. I couldn't believe it.


   Closer inspection revealed a design flaw in the reel's shaft. The shaft that leads to the reel foot (where it attached to the rod) is very thin just above the actual reel and is sandwiched by a piece of plastic on each side of the reel. This outer layer of plastic that sandwiches the shaft serves no purpose that I can tell, other than being there for purely aesthetic purposes. This leaves the actual, functioning material of the shaft very thin at the most critical point of the the structure. To top it all off, it also has a screw that goes right through the middle of the thinned portion of the shaft, running from front to back, and that is exactly where the thing broke! This is a total engineering flaw in the design of this Okuma reel. I have had good experiences with this brand in the past but now I question the design staff's mentality and the failure of the engineers to realize this is a fatal flaw in the Avenger series of reels.

  I took this very same reel, attached to a pack rod with me to New Zealand a few years ago and landed a nice rainbow with it. Thankfully it didn't fail me there. I plan on contacting Okuma's customer service to report my experience with this issue.

  This year has been a tough one on my equipment. I had an Abu Garcia Cardinal reel fail on me earlier in the spring when I set the hook on a huge brook trout. Thank the fish gods I was able to land it. It ended up qualifying to be a Michigan Master Angler trout. The handle retaining cap on that reel snapped, causing the handle to just fall right out of the reel and fold up in it's self. I also broke a pole while camping this year. It's been years since I have broken a rod or a reel, but this year I've made up for it in spades.

   With my day of fishing effectively over, it was now time to go gather some 'shrooms.

Less than amused at the situation

   It was hard to be too dejected with about 5 pounds of fish in my creel. I decided to clean my catch in the woods and hike back to where I found the chanterelles earlier.

I placed the reel to look it was in one piece for this album shot.

  On this trip I took a knife that I had made a number of years ago using a Norwegian Helle' blade blank and a deer jawbone. It made for a cool combination. In case you were wondering...yes, it makes hot spots with heavy use, but I don't care. One might say the handle really "bites in" when you grip it.


   After packing my catch back up and washing my hands and knife off in a spring, I started the hike out. It was a nice a day to be in the field and I was enjoying every minute of it. The sting of the broken reel was fading with every step onto the forest floor.

   I reached the patch of chanterelles and starting picking. I've always enjoyed finding and gathering mushrooms. I find it rather relaxing. Not to mention the culinary rewards you get to reap later.

   Besides the Chanterelles, I found my first batch of hedgehog mushrooms of the year (Hydnum repandum). It's also known as sweet tooth. It's a great mushroom to look for if you are a beginner because it has no poisonous look a likes. They always have a frumpy looking, uneven cap that's a light tanish brown in color and the gills look like spikes, hence it's common name.

The hedgehog's "spikey" gills

  I found this large hedgehog specimen.

  I wandered around a bit to see if I could find anymore mushrooms I was interested in and took a few photos as I finished the walk back out. 

Coral Mushroom.


A bear had been foraging here too. Ripping pieces of stump off.

   Soon it was time to leave and I thought about how this might be the last time I fish this stretch of water this year. It was good season that produced a lot nice fish and even greater memories. As the seasons reset and come full circle I will once again find myself standing along the water's edge next year, and the trout will be waiting.

Thanks for looking.