Fall has always been my favorite time of year. Here in the Midwest, the dog days of summer give way to Indian summer, where sometime in late September and early October shorter daylight hours, lower daytime temperatures, and cooler nights eventually trigger colorful fall foliage…
Of course, October also means the beginning of the false or early rut for whitetail deer, which is the only big-game animal we can hunt smack dab in the Midwest or Illinois. The corn and soybeans are being shelled or cut by those big $250,000 combines, and that means more deer will be on the move. And bowhunters are licking their chops, anticipating elevated levels of activity prior to the gun season opener in November.
But my favorite fall (and spring) memory actually takes me some 3,000 miles northwest to Alaska, the Last Frontier. And it’s two memorable hunts, not one. The reason for two special and memorable hunts? Because both represented the opportunity to hunt two big-game species I had never hunted before, to hunt with industry friends, and to be the first to field test entirely new rifle cartridges.
On my very first trip to Alaska, a hunting trip I had dreamed about since I was in grade school, I had the opportunity to hunt Alaskan moose with Remington’s Art Wheaton. Remington had just that year introduced the Ultra Mag series of cartridges, and I had a Model 700 in .300 long-action Ultra Mag that would prove to be perfect moose medicine. The rut was in full swing, and with my guide (Virgil Umphenour from Hunt Alaska) using a call to entice a bull to temporarily leave his cows; he brought me face to face with a heavy horned 1,600-pound bull in some very thick willows.
You have to understand that for a Midwesterner who had only hunted 150-200 pound whitetails in the woods, this four-legged critter looked as big as a locomotive weaving his way through the willows. Moving through thick brush and busting off willows and pine boughs at will, the bull was towering over all else and was a sight to behold. He was irritated and agitated, and he wanted to confront any challenger who wanted to “steal” one of his cows. Given we were only 50 or so yards away from each other, you can imagine how nervous I was as I got in position, brought the 700 bolt action firmly to my shoulder, fixed the crosshairs on his front shoulder and squeezed the trigger.
The Ultra Mag and Model 700 did its part…moose meat to fill the freezer and a mount to proudly display in my game room.
My second trip to Alaska brought me to a hunting area near Norton Sound with my good friend Wayne Holt, who was with Hornady. It was another opportunity of a lifetime, hunting grizzly bear. Hornady decided to introduce the .375 Ruger cartridge, a round that basically exceeds the performance of the .375 H&H, and to prove its remarkable performance; they wanted us to try it out on dangerous game.
Again, long story short, my guide, Eric Umphenour, spotted a grizzly in open country that seemed to be heading in our direction. Fortunately, we had time to set up and then play the waiting game. Eric had perfectly read the bear’s intention as he basically followed a drainage until he was only about 125 yards away. He was moving quickly from left to right, and when Eric whispered, “take him,” I squeezed the trigger on my Ruger Model 77 Alaskan and heard the first 270-grain bullet impact.
The problem was, when the bear was hit, he went down in a dip in the ground and disappeared. The pucker factor on my index was off the charts. As we discussed what to do next, the griz suddenly resurfaced running full out from right to left…I had a split second to put a second round in him…. I did and he went down instantly.
Two great animals taken with two great guns and two new cartridges, with two special friends….
Two trips loaded with memories to last a lifetime…
Flash forward several decades. Randy—who now works for the National Shooting Sports Foundation—was then manager of Diamond Wing, a hunting preserve near Ennis, and he invited Doug, Ryan and me to come out for a few days to hunt.
We flew to Bozeman and drove to Ennis and spent three days gunning pheasants, chukar and quail over a smorgasbord of bird dogs—a beautiful matched brace of black and white springers named Comet and Spike; a pair of strapping black Labs named Trapper and Doc; a racy young German shorthair named Pepper and her bracemate, a veteran Brittany named Gus who pointed his birds at distances that were nothing short of phenomenal.
Gus would lock up and we’d start to walk in…20, 30, 40 yards. We would glance back at Randy, who was acting as guide and dog handler, and he’d wave us forward. “Go on!” he’d say, and we’d walk another 20 or 30 yards while Gus remained staunch far to our rear. Finally the birds would get up and we’d shoot and the razzing would begin regarding each other’s prowess with a shotgun.
That joking is what I remember most about the hunt—besides the outstanding dog work, that is, and it was outstanding, make no mistake. On our first morning, Doug, our resident comedian, had been quick to point out the huge black rock formation on a nearby mountain that bore a striking resemblance to a gorilla’s face—the prominent brow, the jutting jaw, the frowning expression. Doug promptly christened the formation the Gorilla God and we subsequently attributed every hit or miss to the gorilla’s whim…whether we’d done something to tick him off or were in his favor at the moment we pulled the trigger.
It’s been more than a decade since I spent those three days with my cousins shooting birds over topnotch dogs beneath the Gorilla God, and the memories still bring a smile. Camaraderie like we enjoyed on that hunt is, after all, one of the primary reasons we go afield.
It’s time for us to get together and do it again.
—Rick Van Etten - Gun Dog Magazine
These days, my dreams about fall involve what I’m going to do and where I’m going to go. In that spirit, I've come up with a fall hunting schedule so jam-packed I couldn't possibly do it in terms of time or money. But that's what dreams are for.
August is not fall by the calendar, but if you go far north enough it might as well be. My first hunt of the year would be caribou, hiking across a carpet of tundra that's turning redder by the day and enjoying the tart ripeness of subarctic blueberries while glassing for the majestic deer of the North.
On Labor Day, I’d be sitting in the cornrows of South Carolina, sweating and swearing as doves swoop in and fly away unscathed despite rapid-fire blasts from the shotgun. Three or four boxes of shells might be enough to cook up a few dove kebabs at the evening barbecue.
A week or so later and it's on to the plains of Wyoming, where the antelope play catch me if you can and it’s great fun to stoop, crawl, run—whatever it takes to get close to them. Now it's feeling like autumn under wide blue skies; while the temps may be high midday, mornings and evenings carry a chill.
It isn’t far from there into higher country, where the aspens are beginning to yellow and the elk are beginning to rut. If there's a sound that encapsulates fall, it's the keening sound of a rutting bull. The hunting's hard, and just being in that country and hearing that sound are reward enough—although a cooler full of elk meat is a welcome bonus.
I wasn't a big waterfowler growing up, but I wanted to be. And one of the most amazing hunts I got to do in my later years was a trip to Alberta in mid-October. We lay in the fields under oversize decoys and watched through the slits as hundreds of geese swirling above us, stacked in holding patterns like jets at O'Hare as they tried to get a look at our decoy spread—dekes we'd set up in the dark as the northern lights danced tantalizingly above our heads.
About this time I'd head back to my home state of Pennsylvania and take a seat against a big ol' shagbark hickory, watching the limbs and trunks above my head for the flicker of a bushy gray tail. Or maybe open the door of the car and thrill to the sight of beagles bouncing out of the car as we start searching for the first cottontail of the day, the frost coating our boots as we cross the fields.
I was once asked what hunt would I do if it were my last one. Without hesitation I described what it was like to cruise the Allegheny Mountains in western Virginia, looking for fall turkeys—the scent of leaves and wood smoke from the few isolated houses in the hollows below tingeing the air as the chill early morning haze give way to a crisp blue sky. The excitement of finding fresh scratching’s, the strategy of moving into position to break up a flock (or, more challenging, enticing an old gobbler to walk into shotgun range), the calls of birds reassembling...it's just the ultimate hunt to me.
It's still technically fall when Pennsylvania's buck season opens right after Thanksgiving, but it might as well be winter most years in the far northern part of the state. Back in the old days I would park myself against a tree and watch a deer trail crossing from first light to last, not moving. It was almost always cold, and those vigils were a test of will and taught me how to tough it out if I wanted to be successful. I wouldn't do it that way today; such a deer hunt would be more about getting together with family and friends to enjoy a tradition than about filling the freezer.
—Scott J. Rupp - Handguns Magazine and Rifle Shooter Magazine
My favorite fall memory is mastering a cast called the “Snap T.” Don't get me wrong, I'm no expert on the Spey casts handed down from generation to generation, and from Atlantic salmon fishermen on Scotland's River Spey, to North American steelheaders. Spey casting is both a skill and an art. Like golf it can never be fully "mastered"—it's just too complex and there are always subtle ways to improve.
But last fall, on B.C.'s Kispiox River, I had an "aha!" moment one blue-sky afternoon, where the anchor dropped into place without having to eyeball it into position, the D loop reached back over the rocks along the shoreline, and the rod shot forward in a straight line that sent a perfect loop reaching out across the beautiful lines of the Sportsman Pool. Not long afterward, a gorgeous steelhead—1,000 miles from her feeding grounds in the Gulf of Alaska—came to my hand.
—Ross Purnell - Fly Fisherman Magazine
We packed up the minivan as I said goodbye to my Mathews Z7 Xtreme bow, and headed to the Gulf of Mexico. The plan was to lounge on the beach and fish. I’m not much of a lounger, but I do love fishing, and so do my four boys. We traveled with two other families, who are our best friends, and stayed in rented houses on St. George Island, south of Tallahassee.
On the first day, we corralled all our fishing gear and headed to a local pier. I’ve had limited success fishing from piers in the past, but this one was on fire. We got lucky and arrived just as the fall baitfish migration showed up.
Kids from 5 years to 16 years, as well as the adults, were catching sand trout, sea trout, and sea bass, with your typical catfish, grunts and rays thrown in. But my youngest was having a hard time getting a bite. He smiled as his friends screamed with excitement at the bend of their rods, or as they swung another fresh Gulf game fish over the rail of the pier. But still, the 7-year-old fished the morning without anything to show for it except a half-empty bait bucket.
As family and friends caught more fish — flounder, sand perch, croakers, and a blacktip shark — my boy Danny started losing faith.
“Why can’t I catch anything, Dad?” he asked.
“Just keep your line in the water,” I said. “I bet it’s just a matter of time.”
I watched him from a distance while I helped another kid unhook another fish. It was one of those times when you see your child struggling and your heart breaks for him. But I also knew that he’d probably catch a fish eventually, and his persistence would be an excellent life lesson. Sure enough, his rod tip bent low. I wanted to grab the rod from him and reel it in myself just to make sure the fish didn’t come off the hook. I resisted the urge and watched helplessly, knowing profoundly how much emotion was riding on two knots in the 10-pound-test line and 20-pound leader.
When the fish broke the surface, it wasn’t a thick, bronze redfish, hulking black drum, or silvery king mackerel; it was a lowly 5-inch pigfish. You would have thought it was the state record by Danny’s reaction. He beamed with pride, and so did I. I picked him up and spun him around as he grasped his little success story.
We clicked as many pictures of that fish as we did of any of the trophies we caught that week in St. George Island. And it’s that fish, and those memories, that Danny and I remember most clearly to this day.
—John Geiger - Game and Fish Magazine
One of my fondest fall memories is the first time my dad and I hunted quail together. He let me use his old, bolt-action Mossberg Model 183 D-B in .410 Bore for that hunt. We hunted the edges of the small stands of timber and along the fencerows of my family’s farm. We weren’t lucky enough to put down any quail that day, and I’m not sure if we even saw any, but I will never forget the anticipation before and my sheer excitement during that hunt. I loved every minute of that outing.
—Joel J. Hutchcroft - Shooting Times Magazine
My buddy, Scott, released his first sailfish with me on one of those days. What made that trip especially memorable was that we were fishing on a borrowed boat, three counties away from our homeport.
We’d also had a tough time catching bait. If memory serves me, all we had were four mullet and a pinfish in the livewell. Sailfish are hungry in the fall—you put that bait in the right spot, they’re going to eat it.”
—Jeff Weakley - Florida Sportsman Magazine
For the lifelong hunter, fall brings the very earliest of all memories. Cold, clear days and a canoe being pushed into the water to bust thin skim ice, shooting squirrels and wood ducks from it on an old cypress swamp, daydreaming about the big, white-horned buck or sounder of wild hogs just around every corner of the creek as a boy’s imagination runs wild. Old butane handwarmers, and deer stands made from actual two-by-four wood and plywood. Turkeys walking right up to me in blaze orange if I did not blink, toes numbing below a live oak tree. Huge, southern fox squirrels hitting the forest floor with a whump. A giant blacktail with 9-inch drop tines skidding to a stop in the black timber and heavy snow on Mount Rainier from a running neck shot, my first deer at age 15 with a .270. Tracking a tiny band of Roosevelt elk at age 18, bows in hand, with a close friend for seven hours, crossing a river five times and chasing bugles to see my friend make an 85-yard shot into the record books… and the way that giant bull made my Toyota pickup sag, horns sprouting from the bed like tree roots. Bloody cougar tracks in the snow swinging down into the trail of the huge buck I was tracking in Idaho, giant whitetails and muleys on the Canada border in Washington too smart to let me catch more than a glimpse, circling back in my tracks. Snowstorms at 10,000 feet in Utah in August, giant velvet muleys always just out of reach.
Fall is a giant Texas whitetail that fled when, as a five-year old, I yelled, “Look, daddy, there’s a buck,” as my father was trying to switch from birdshot to slugs in his old Fox double (and he almost made it). Smoking hot Eastern Washington duck shoots with dad and friends, with the first cool mornings of the year. And, of course, doves. Doves all over, in many states, their small feathers sticky with their blood on your fingers. And that one lucky bird that made the strafing run down the line of guns in September and lived to tell about it. Their breasts wrapped in bacon and kids running through the feathers all over the ground when the plucking was done.
Fall is giant black bears appearing like huge black cows in huckleberry patches in the Northwest while we were looking for mule deer in September, and the blistering foot pain from packing them out on foot because you could not resist making that shot. Grouse in the trail, fool’s hens, killable with rocks and their berry-flavored breasts over the fire.
My fall memories are too many to list. And you can always find more. Most exciting of all, the best memories of fall are the ones coming up, and also learning there are really two fall seasons on this earth.
Down in Argentina this April, fall was settling across the land, cool nights squeezing the last greens from the lower grasslands, pushing to blonde and just starting to do the same to the trees. I’d waited my whole life to witness fall here, and hear the great red stag roar. And yes, it’s true, they make our beautiful iconic wapiti whistle sound like feminine weaklings. Chasing screaming stags in the Andes while guys back home were calling turkeys is a bucket list memory no one can ever take away.
That trip blew my mind, the booming dragon roar in the black timber from stags that fight so hard entire beams are snapped off. Then we shot limits of ducks, and hooked trout in cold, clear autumn waters. The other hemisphere will be an unfortunately expensive new addiction to the best season, but it’s sure amazing to really experience why fall is so wonderful God saw fit to make two of them.
—Skip Knowles - Wildfowl Magazine
After recalling a few stories from the old days, Paul said, “Sometimes I wish things wouldn’t have changed. That catching fish, seining minnows, trapping crawfish, and shooting carp with our bows was still our number-one priority in life.”
An idealistic thought, though not a bad idea.
Back in those days, our only stress was being home in time for dinner and wondering what we were going to do tomorrow.
We spent our days catching walleyes, pike, perch, bass, and bluegills, and countless hours cranking in bullheads until our stringers were full. And if we weren’t fishing, we were seining gallons of minnows or trapping dozens of crawdads.
Fall was our favorite time of year. We hunted doves, ducks, geese, and pheasants with our shotguns and whitetails with our bows, plus, our quest for walleyes never ended.
Times change. College and our careers drove us away from our daily routine of doing something almost daily together in the outdoors.
Through my career in the fishing industry, I’ve been blessed to travel on adventures throughout North America. I’ve discovered that ducks and geese are just as fun and challenging to hunt in Canada as they are in Louisiana and that North America is full of big fish. It seems nearly every huge walleye you catch in Lake Erie has a good chance of weighing more than the one you just caught. Northern pike in Canada are big, mean, and abundant. And, every fall, I’m haunted and taunted by the muskies that pass through my thoughts and trail just behind my lures.
Fall memories of the good old days with family and good friends, like Paul Schamber, have been with me since I was 5 years old. Those days simply can't be duplicated. However, like most good recipes, they can be replicated and the results are almost always good.
—Jeff Simpson - In-Fisherman Magazine
The property was just 2.2 miles from my house in Marietta, but it seemed a galaxy away. It was the home of my late friend John Manning, whose family had owned the land since the 1800s. The home had stood since before the Civil War, which was in itself noteworthy; the bloody Battle of Kennesaw Mountain was fought nearby, and the Union Army razed many structures on its sweep to the sea.
During Reconstruction and for many decades after, the Manning place was a working farm. John told of childhood days spent clearing rocks from the fields and in the process turning up Civil War Minie balls in such numbers that he toted the projectiles to the hardware store and sold them for 25 cents a bucketful. There they were melted for plumbing lead, some of which no doubt still is in local homes. And so another long-ago event in American history lives on, even if hardly anyone today knows it.
Suburbia grew up all around the home place. Over time, a high school, subdivisions and apartment buildings replaced neighboring farms and woods. But in the midst of it all, that old farm remained.
And so did whitetails. Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield, on which no hunting is allowed, lies within a half-mile of the farm, and its prolific deer would range onto surrounding properties to feed and breed. The latter of those urges ultimately afforded me a chance to take the widest-racked buck I’ve ever arrowed.
I saw him for the first time on Nov. 3. I was out casually glassing for deer when I spotted the 8-pointer trailing some does. He was easily the biggest buck I’d ever seen on the hoof in Georgia, and as soon as I laid eyes on him, I knew I’d be devoting every spare minute to his pursuit.
Cobb County, like several others in the Atlanta metro area, has no firearms hunting for deer. So while most other Georgia deer hunters were toting their rifles, I kept plugging with bow in hand, hoping the buck would return. But day after day of hunting produced zero sightings.
He finally gave me another look on the muggy morning of Nov. 24. At around 9:30, I spotted the buck cruising for does out in a fescue pasture. Shortly after I rattled, he walked to within 12 feet of my stand in a leafy pin oak. My arrow sliced through his right lung and liver. I’d shot the whitetail I’d singled out to take.
As I admired the buck’s inside spread of 21 1/8 inches, I realized that sometimes you don’t even need to leave town to find a great hunting memory. In this case, one starring a special whitetail, a special friend and a special piece of land.
—Gordon Whittington - North American Whitetail Magazine
I was there hoping and scheming, so much alone with my thoughts, until I began to find a way to make the catching happen. Drinking countless cups of coffee by the light of the moon. Some nights dark and threatening—rain, sleet or snow pelting my back. Spending time, too, on those perfect nights with the smell of smoldering leaves in the air and a harvest moon rising in the east. And, in other ways, defining and redefining the process—the rod, the reel, the line, the lures—until the process was a fine science of sorts.
Soon enough, having spent the time and paid enough dirty dues, it began to work so well, those senses so finely tuned in the darkness, so abruptly interrupted by a jolt in a dead-slow retrieve or trolling run—and then to be there with one of those monsters at net, flashlight beam reflecting the life in those marble eyes. These days, no more than a smile and a salute send the big ones on their way. Smaller fish, though, still fare well at my table—even two smaller fish, the focus of a fine meal.
Much of my life has revolved around this pursuit. Looking back I would not have had it any other way. And it is hopeless to expect change now. Last night was another of those nights. Arriving home at midnight, a couple of strips of bacon hit the pan. Bacon finished, a little butter added to season the bacon oil, then the fillets dusted in flour and corn meal, plus salt, cayenne and black pepper. Three minutes passing, turn those fillets, and add a couple of eggs to fry alongside. Won’t be long now, so pour a glass of wine, tear off a hunk of bread—relive another good night passing.
My fishing life has not been defined so much by select moments, as by a lifetime of special moments along the way. The midnight trips to catch those fall walleyes are a little less frequent today. Still, I feel each full moon rising in these bones. I still lie sleepless on many nights, wondering how busyness can interrupt such essence in anyone’s life. I rest easy. We fish, too, if only for a moment and at some distance, when we have hard-won experiences to remember and the hope of more to come.
—Doug Stange - In-Fisherman Magazine
My son, Jason, and I were getting a double dose of that exhilaration as two bulls bugled their way toward my seductive cow calls. Their pace through the Arizona timber was deliberate and committed. Each feared the other would get to the cow first.
Jason lay in wait; arrow nocked, just 30 yards in front of me, with videographer, Larry D. Jones, rolling camera over his shoulder. Though our experience levels ranged from greenhorn to veteran, the three of us trembled with equal excitement. Screaming bulls, at close range, will do that to you.
I simultaneously called and watched through binoculars as the larger bull strolled into our ambush. Then, as if he’d walked into a sinkhole, the bull instantly dropped out of my field of view. Jason’s arrow had struck the bull a bit high and severed its spinal cord, dropping him in his tracks.
I rushed to a scene filled with hugs, handshakes and maybe a touch of prideful tears. Jason seemed somewhat stunned at first, as though the moment hadn’t really happened, but it was real. He’d taken a beautiful bull elk with his bow and I was thankful to be there to share the experience with him. Father and son moments don’t get much better that that one.
Jason is a serious, dedicated hunter/angler. It’s in his nature. And I’m proud of that.
—Curt Wells - Bowhunter Magazine
My big-buck moment came in September 2009 during an early-season bowhunt outside Kirksville, Mo. At the time, it had been less than a year since I assumed the editor’s role at Petersen’s BOWHUNTING, so the 2009 season marked the first time I was able to take advantage of newfound opportunities to chase big, Midwestern whitetails. Prior to that, the vast majority of my deer hunting had occurred in my home state of Pennsylvania, and while I had put plenty of whitetails on the ground, there wasn’t a whopper in the bunch.
Needless to say, I carried sky-high expectations for what the Show-Me State would show me. During the first two days of the hunt, however, every archer in camp saw a shooter except me! And after a slow morning on day three, I was getting antsy. That’s when I caught my big break. One of the other hunters in camp – someone who had several close encounters with shooter bucks but was unable to get a shot – had to head home early to deal with some work commitments. Call me an opportunist, but I graciously “volunteered” to occupy that hunter’s stand that afternoon!
Around 3:00 p.m., I climbed into a ladder stand set along the edge of a large clover plot where some big bucks had been making regular evening appearances. In addition to the clover, the large white oak where the stand was set was dropping bushels of acorns, making the setup absolutely ideal. I wasn’t surprised when I saw a steady stream of deer and turkeys visit the plot that afternoon. It was clearly a great spot, and with any luck, one of the big boys would show up before nightfall.
A little after 7:00 p.m., I was watching a medium-sized 8-pointer to my left when the buck suddenly stopped feeding, raised his head high and stared past me at something coming from the bottom end of the plot. I slowly turning my head and was awed by the sight of the largest buck I had ever seen from a stand to that point in my life. My body was instantly supercharged by a rush of adrenaline, and I reached for my rangefinder as the big buck made his way steadily toward the smaller 8-pointer; a path that would take him directly past my stand.
With the buck now standing at 25 yards, I drew my bow, gapped the 20- and 30-yard pins and released a perfect shot that sucked right into the crease behind his front shoulder. The buck sprinted across the food plot, crashed into the woods on the opposite side and then…silence. I radioed back to camp for some tracking assistance, and as I sat there waiting for the others to arrive, I realized my perspective on deer hunting had changed forever. If there was a big-buck club, I had just joined it; the bar had been forever raised. We found my heart-shot prize 120 yards from the stand. The majestic buck sported 14 points, tipped the scales at 210 pounds (live weight) and scored 157 2/8 gross—easily my best ever.
In the three-plus years since that hunt, I’ve had many more opportunities to chase big bucks and even killed a few. But there’s just something special about the first time you can never duplicate.
—Christian Berg - Bowhunting Magazine