The Lost Art of Woodsmanship
For this article, woodsmanship will refer to a person’s interpretation and application of those clues in nature to catch fish or shoot game animals.
As a young boy , I learned most of my woodsmanship skills from my grandfather as my brother and I would tag along on grouse, woodcock, duck and pheasant hunts in west central Wisconsin. We hunted public land exclusively. My grandfather lived through the depression so being successful meant providing food for the family. He could read deer sign better than anyone I have ever met as almost all of our most productive stand sites were at locations he found. We learned that deer would follow edges and cross marshes where there was some cover or a pinch point. We set up on funnels before that phrase became popular. I could predict where bucks would make scrapes based on my experience in the woods. We had to be one of the first families that utilized aerial photography in the late 60’s and early 70’s. We had to order 3’x3’ composite photographs that were pieced together from pictures taken from an airplane. My uncle was a pilot in WWII and he was familiar with these through his reconnaissance work. He ordered these through a Madison based company and we examined the maps to determine where to put deer stands and set up deer drives. Pinch points on marshes and high land with brush crossing marshes allowed us to determine deer escape routes without stepping foot in the woods. My cousin and I hunted together so much that we had developed a language of hand signals to communicate silently when sneaking up on ducks in ditches and creeks. We knew where deer bedded and where they fed on the oak ridges and poplar slashings and we chose trees to climb into to cover these routes.
We learned how to read the current in river and creeks when fishing for walleye or trout. We learned how wing dams, log jams, points and undercut banks affected fish location.
Flash forward 50 years. I watch Van Jolin (87 year old fishing guide and one of my best friends) find a hump the size of a car in the middle of a huge body of water by landmarks on land. No GPS , no fancy locator just by a process called triangulation. I have also learned to read the wind, water color and water temperature to determine where fish are active. I determine what lake to fish and where to fish based on wind direction knowing that the wind will kick start the food chain into motion wherever it hits structure. I can identify every weed on lakes and can determine when fish use them. One of the best pieces of advice I was ever given was by Lyle Chapman, a native American fishing guide, who told me to find the bait and you will find the fish. That seems simple but it is 100% correct. Fish near bait are feeding fish. Due to my science background and continual observations, I understand the dynamics of water movement due to temperature and use a depth probe to determine water temperature at depth. While I am using technology, it is the interpretation of this information that helps me determine where fish will be and where they can’t be.
Woodsmanship can also refer to survival skills if you are lost whether on land or on the water. Can you read a map or is Google your sole method of navigation? Can you start a fire? What are the two best natural fire starters in the woods?
Can you build a shelter? How can you insulate your body with the clothes you have on? I would be willing to bet, most of the people who claim to be sportsmen cannot answer half of those questions. You are possibly leaving your life to depend upon technology. Cell signals aren’t present in the wilderness areas you are most apt to get lost.
So what is the point? I believe technology has reduced our ability to use our brain to interpret nature's clues. When confronted with failure we throw up our hands and make excuses for that failure. We should instead use that failure as a learning experience. Eliminating possibilities is one of the most effective problem solving methods that we can utilize. For instance, many fishermen came to the northwoods this year and when they went to their favorite weedbed and found no fish they became frustrated and complained to the local bait shop owner. “ It must be due to spearing or winter kill.” The fish are still there but due to a long winter and heavy snow fall, heavy slush reduced light penetration on many lakes and that resulted in little green cabbage weed. Instead the cabbage was replaced by wild celery/eel grass which is a weed that provides no benefit to fish or anglers. It is however, a delicacy for ducks. This has resulted in fewer fish in the traditional areas. It has caused fish to either move to shoreline wood cover or the basin of the lakes. When confronted with thick milfoil weed beds that are impenetrable, many fishermen move away from those weeds. I use them to my advantage as a shade source and a barrier which predators use to corral bait.
We now have Panoptics, Live Scope and MEGA live imaging which gives you a real time “video” of fish in the water. You can move the transducer in a circle and it will tell you the direction where the fish are located, how far away the fish are and how the fish react to your bait. It gives you immediate feedback with little need for interpretation. Has technology gone too far? I fear this technology will destroy many fisheries before it is outlawed. Here is the reason. Prior to this type of technology, a person still needed to be able to interpret signals from the sonar and GPS to determine what they were seeing and how that could help them catch fish. Cameras are great for seeing exactly what is beneath you but they are impractical when fishing open water. People invested a lot of time scouting and trying different techniques to get fish to strike a bait. Not with the new side imaging sonar. Any Joe off the street with enough money buys a Live Scope, drives his $80,000 truck and $70,000 boat to the lake and with little experience, finds fish with his Live Scope. He can then catch and harvest fish at a much higher rate. What is wrong with that you say? When people are given things or come by them easily they do not respect them. The fish harvest will increase and people will harvest fish to the point of decimation on the small lakes of northern Wisconsin. IMO part of the excitement of fishing is the unknown. You will also feel much more gratification if your work to harvest fish or game pays off in success. People just don’t respect the resource if they come by it so easily.
This now leads into hunting of any wild game. Due to TV shows and You Tube videos, you are told the way to be successful is to manage your deer herd. You need to place tree houses with heaters and TV’s at strategic spots on your food plot. That stand stays there for decades and deer are lured to the spot with corn from a feeder or a more “respectable” food plot. Once established there is little effort involved in “hunting”. Tiny kids with no concept whatsoever of what killing an animal is about or the consequences of that kill are allowed to “harvest” game with the use of a gun stand that mom or dad can manipulate to sight in on the game. People are shamed when they shoot a buck under 120”. My nephew wasn’t allowed to shoot a buck on his dad’s property until it reached the “shooter status” for God’s sake. In some states like Texas there is very little public hunting land so you have to pay exorbitant fees to even hunt on private land. You are shown a directory of bucks that the owner has inventoried for you to select for harvest. Then a successful shooter pounds their chest and exclaims “ I only shoot Booners” (phrase for game animal that meets Boone and Crocket minimum standards) and this person gets a TV show because he is a great “sportsman”.
Whatever happened to scouting the land you plan to hunt to find natural game trails, beds, scrapes and rubs. What about understanding the different foods that deer eat throughout the seasons and setting up on game trails that lead to and from those food sources to the bedding areas you found through year round scouting. What about setting up your portable stand that isn’t very comfortable on a funnel between two areas that does inhabit during the rut. Heck I used to climb a tree and sit on a limb for hours on end. Now that is uncomfortable. I never used a stand until I was in my mid 30’s and never used a ladder stand until I was 50.
I laugh at guys that post on social media that there are no deer in northern Wisconsin due to wolves, coyotes, bears or cougars and it is all the DNR’s fault. Yet they are hunting the same block of timber for 30 years. It was great 30 years ago when the forest was young and there was plenty of deer browse. Now the trees have matured, shaded out the undergrowth and there is no reason for deer to even be in the area. They have done no logging to rejuvenate the forest but it is the DNR’s fault for not pushing for a wolf season. I have only hunted private land once or twice in my lifetime. I am constantly scouting to find active food sources. In a good acorn year, every deer in the woods in northern Wisconsin will flock to areas of oaks that drop acorns. You won’t see many deer along roads at that time as they are all in the oaks feeding on acorns along with the bears, turkeys and of course the squirrels. You can even take it to the extreme level of a kid I fished with on the piers of Sheboygan when I first started teaching. Gary Grunow is a grown man now that has a passion for white tails. He hunts public land in several states and scouts from the end of the deer season and through the present season. He is rewarded with a plethora of trophy whitetails on his wall. To me he is the ultimate sportsman.
So the ultimate goal of this article was to get you thinking about your methods of catching fish and hunting and killing game animals. ( I guess harvesting is the more politically correct term) Are you falling into the trap of taking the easy way out. I hear all of the time “I just don’t have time to scout or research a lake or my kids don’t like to do it”. Spend time with your family and get outdoors. We found so many cool places in northern Wisconsin when we geocached 15 years ago. Some of those places are good hunting or fishing spots for me today. Hunting and fishing is not a matter of filling the freezer for me. I love the challenge presented on a daily basis and it soothes my soul. I didn’t do it for a year and almost died. Think about what you are leaving to your kids and grandkids when you are on a lake or in the woods. They deserve to experience nature at its’ best.