SI Vault
Jim Harrison
October 11, 1971
Hunters and anglers who do not heed fish and game codes—who snag trout with gang hooks and deerslay with jacklights—destroy the spirit as well as the substance of outdoor sport. A poet living in rural Michigan indicts these violators of nature
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
October 11, 1971

Grim Reapers Of The Land's Bounty

Hunters and anglers who do not heed fish and game codes—who snag trout with gang hooks and deerslay with jacklights—destroy the spirit as well as the substance of outdoor sport. A poet living in rural Michigan indicts these violators of nature

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue

Picture this man on a cool late summer morning, barely dawn: gaunt, bearded, walking through his barnyard carrying a Winchester 30-30, wearing a frayed denim coat and mauve velvet bell-bottoms. He is broke and though able-bodied he thinks of himself as an artist and immune to the ordinary requirements of a livelihood. Perhaps he is. He is one of the now numberless dropouts from urban society, part of a new agrarian movement, the "back to the land" bit that seems to be sweeping young writers. But he hankers for meat rather than the usual brown rice. I myself in a fatuous moment have told him of my own 200-gram-a-day protein diet—meat, meat, meat, lots of it with cheese and eggs, plus all the fruit you can lift from neighboring orchards and all the bourbon you can afford during evening pool games. Who needs macrobiotics.

Anyway, back to the barnyard. The killer lets the horses out of the paddock and they run off through the ground mist. The morning is windless and the grass soaked with dew, ideal conditions for poaching a deer. He walks up the hill behind his house, very steep. He is temporarily winded and sits down for a cigarette. Thirty miles out in Lake Michigan the morning sun has turned the steep cliffs of South Fox Island golden. There is a three-foot moderate roll, the lake trout and coho trailers will be out today in all of their overequipped glory. Later in the season he will snag lake trout from the Leland River, or perhaps even catch some fairly. He thinks of the coho as totally contemptible—anyone with a deft hand can pluck them from the feeder streams.

About 500 yards to the east, clearly visible from the hill, is a deserted orchard and a grove of brilliantly white birch trees. Beautiful. He will walk quietly through a long neck of woods until he is within 100 yards of the orchard. Except in the deepest forest, deer are largely nocturnal feeders in Michigan, but they can still be seen in some quantity at dawn or dusk if you know where to look. During the day they filter into the sweet coolness of cedar swamps or into the rows of the vast Christmas tree plantations. He sits and rests his rifle on a stump. He immediately spots a large doe between the second and third rows of the orchard, and farther back in the scrubby neglected trees a second-year buck, maybe 130 pounds, perfect eating size. He aims quickly just behind and a trifle below the shoulder and fires. The buck stumbles, then bursts into full speed. But this energy is deceptive and the animal soon drops. My friend hides his rifle, covering it with dead leaves. If you do happen to get caught—the odds are against it—your rifle is confiscated. He jogs down to the deer, stoops, hoists its dead weight to his shoulder and heads back to the house.

A few hours later his pickup pulls into my yard. I am in the barn wondering how I can fix one of the box stalls when my brother has bent the neck of my hammer pulling spikes. I hear the truck and when I come out into the yard he hands me a large bloody package. Everything is understood. We go into the kitchen and have a drink though it is only 10 in the morning. We slice the buck's liver very thin, then drive to the grocery store where I have some inexpensive white Bordeaux on order. When we get back my wife has saut�ed the liver lightly in clarified butter. We eat this indescribably delicious liver, which far exceeds calf's liver in flavor and tenderness. A hint of apple, clover and fern. We drink a few bottles of wine and he goes home and I take a nap. That evening my wife slices a venison loin into medallions, which she again cooks simply. During the afternoon I had driven into Traverse City to splurge on a bottle of Ch�teauneuf-du-Pape. The meal—the loin and a simple salad of fresh garden lettuce, tomatoes and some green onions—was exquisite.

End of tale. I wouldn't have shot the deer myself. But I ate a lot of it, probably 10 pounds in all. I think it was wrong to shoot the deer. Part of the reason I would not have killed it is that I am no longer able to shoot at mammals. Grouse and woodcock, yes. But gutting and skinning a deer reminds me too much of the human carcass and a deer heart too closely resembles my own. My feelings are a trifle ambivalent on this particular incident but I have decided my friend is a violator only barely more tolerable than the cruder sort. If it had been one of the local Indians—it often is—I would have found it easy to bow to the ancestral privilege. But my friend is not a local Indian.

Game hoggery is not the point. The issue is much larger than human greed. We have marked these creatures to be hunted and slaughtered, and destroyed all but a remnant of their natural enemies. But fish and mammals must be considered part of a larger social contract, and just laws for their protection enforced with great vigor. The first closed deer season in our country due to depletion of the herds occurred in 1694 in Massachusetts. Someone once said, "The predator husbands his prey." The act of violation is ingrained, habitual; it represents a clearly pathological form of outdoor atavism. Not one violator out of a hundred acts out of real need or hunger. The belief that he does is another of many witless infatuations with local color.

I have an inordinate amount of time to think and wander around. Poets muse a lot. Or as Whitman, no mean fisherman, said, "I loaf and invite my soul." Mostly loaf. I have always found that I can think better and more lucidly with my Fox Sterlingworth, or any of a number of fly rods, in hand. I'm a poor shot, but I really do miss some grouse because I'm thinking. Recently I was walking along a stream that empties into Lake Michigan within half a dozen miles of my farm. It was late October, with a thin skein of snow that would melt off by afternoon. There were splotches of blood everywhere and many footprints and small piles of coho guts. The fish were nearly choking the stream, motionless except for an errant flip of tail to maintain position. And there were some dead ones piled up near a small logjam. They stank in the sharp fall air with the pervasive stench of a dead shorthorn I had once found near the Manistee River. Oh, well. Sport will be sport. No doubt someone had illegally clubbed a few for his smokehouse. Clubbed or pitched them out with a fork or shovel as one pitches manure. They are surprisingly good if properly smoked, though you must slice and scrape out the belly fat because of the concentrated DDT found there. But in the stream, in their fairly advanced stage of deliquescence, with backs and snouts scarred and sore and whitish, they looked considerably less interesting than floundering carp. How could a steelhead swim through this aquatic garbage to spawn? Tune in later, maybe another year or two, folks.

I walked back to my car and drove west two miles to the stream mouth. This confluence of waters has never produced any really big trout, but it is fine for close-to-home fishing. I rigged my steelhead rod, put on my waders and began casting into a mild headwind, which required a low-profile turnover. Around here one learns to appreciate anything less than 15 knots, though if the water is too still the fishing is bad. I am not a pretty caster and my ability to double-haul, thus increasing line speed, is imperfect; when you flunk a double haul the line whips and cracks, then collapses around your head and you are frustrated and sad as only a flycaster can be, glad only that no one was watching. I hooked two small fish on an at-tractor pattern and lost them after a few jumps. Then I hooked a larger fish on a lightly weighted Muddler and within an asthmatic half hour of coaxing I beached it. I was breathless, insanely excited. A steelhead, maybe six pounds with a vague pink stripe and short for his weight, chunky, muscular, a very healthy fish. Yum. Then this retired contractor from Ann Arbor I know came along and began casting with a small spoon and light spinning tackle. He is a pleasant sort, mildly arthritic, so his sport exacts no small amount of pain—the water is cold and the wind is cold and moist. He fished for an hour or so before he hooked an ungodly animal, a steelhead that porpoised like a berserk marlin, easily the largest I had ever seen. It made a long lateral run and he followed it down the beach for a few hundred yards before the fish turned and headed out for South Manitou Island and, beyond that, Wisconsin. It cleaned him. We sat and talked about the beast and I could see that his hands were shaking.

Three more fishermen came along and began casting in my spot with huge treble-hooked spoons. One of them quickly changed to a heavy bell sinker to which he had attached large hooks. They were using what is known in Michigan as the "Newaygo Twitch"; three easy turns of the reel and then a violent reef. It is a fine method for foul-hooking and snagging coho and chinook, even spawning steelhead and lake trout. The Michigan Department of Natural Resources has submitted to political pressure and ruled that foul-hooked salmon can be kept rather than released and this ruling has encouraged bozos by the thousand to use the twitch method to the exclusion of all other styles of fishing. I have seen sportsmen snag upwards of 200 pounds of lake trout—incredibly far over the legal limit—in the Leland River where the fish are in layers devouring their own aborted spawn below the dam. And these people have been led to think they are fishing. Anyway, I left the beach immediately. I stopped into Dick's Tavern to calm my abraded nerves. I often fantasize about bullwhip-ping these creeps as Mother Nature's Dark Enforcer. When my imagination for vengeance is depleted I think about moving to Montana where such yuks, I suppose, are as plentiful, but seem at least less visible. It is strange to see a government agency sponsoring acts that are a degradation of the soul of sport. It is as if the National Football League were to encourage and promote face-mask tackling. Take a firm grasp and rip his damn head off.

It is a silly mistake, I've found, to assume that rules of fair play are shared. I have met and talked at length with men who harry and club to death both fox and coyote from snowmobiles. It should not seem necessary to pass laws against so base and resolutely mindless a practice, but it is necessary. I suppose that in simplistic terms our acquisitive and competitive urges have been transferred directly to sport—one can "win" over fish or beast but, unlike what happens in other forms of sport, the violator disregards all the rules. A certain desolate insensitivity persists: I know some seemingly pleasant enough young men who in the past have gathered up stray dogs to use as target practice to hone their skills. This is not the sort of thing one can argue about. Neither can one question the logic of the hunting club members who bait deer with apples, corn and a salt lick, and then on the crisp dawn of the first day of the season fire away at the feeding animals. Or marksmen who hang around rural dumps to get their garbage bear. Or those who wander around swamps adjacent to lakes in the spring collecting gunny sacks of spawning pike; usually they are the same people who tell you that fishing "isn't what it used to be." To be sure, the majority of sportsmen follow the laws with some care, but the majority is scarcely overwhelming. More like a plurality with a grand clot of the indifferent buffering the middle. And silent, at best. Not to mention the chuckle-wink aspect, the we're-all-cowpokes-ain't-we attitude, of so many judges who mete out wrist-slap fines to game-law violators.

Continue Story
1 2