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McKean Minute: Only A Doe

The stalk was perfect, right until it wasn’t. The group of mule deer does and fawns blew out of the snowberries like a flock of quail.

My buddy looked at the rapidly disappearing butts and black-tipped tails and sighed dismissively. “Who cares. It’s only a doe.”

Only a doe?

Only a doe can teach you the finer points of stealth. Only a doe can pick you off at 1,000 yards despite your best efforts to stay concealed. Only a doe has a nose that can detect scent particles in vanishingly tiny concentrations. Only a doe can produce the bucks with the headgear you measure and memorialize. Only a doe can make a fool out of hunters both ordinary and accomplished.

Only a doe, you say?

Only a doe can hold her ground while the rest of the herd slips over the horizon. Only a doe can stamp her feet and cause a riot of white tails and alarm snorts. Only a doe can starve herself to feed her fawns. Only a doe can manufacture rump roasts and backstraps and succulent venison shanks. Only a doe can lead the way to safety, winter range, and spring fawning grounds, not once but every season for her lifetime.

Only a doe can be the most surprising and satisfying trophy of your season. But only if you respect all the trip-wire senses and elephantine memory that built her. Only a doe.

McKean Minute: On Expectations

I’m a sucker for a wide-eyed beginner. Show me an angler who doesn’t know a blood knot, and I’ll swim the river to show her the ropes. Bring me a hunter who doesn’t know where to start looking for gear, and I’ll let him borrow mine.

Maybe that’s the inclination that makes me so open to being a mentor, which can be defined as anyone who has the inclination to share their experiences with someone less experienced. It’s deer season here in Montana, and for the last several years the ritual has opened with a couple days devoted just to young hunters. Kids get a week’s jump on the rest of us, and the only conditions—besides having a valid license—is that youth have to hunt with a non-hunting adult at least 18 years old.

This youth season is tailor-made for mentoring, and through our local sportsman’s group, I’ve helped facilitate a number of mentored relationships. I’ve been handing down gear to a neighbor whose parents don’t hunt, and asked him if he had anyone to share the youth hunt with. When he said he didn’t, we hatched a plan to meet up.

First, we looked over his gear. He needed a rangefinder. I had an extra. He needed a headlamp. I had an extra. Same with bipod, rain gear, and a backpack. They’re yours to keep, I told him. If you upgrade or find you have no use for them, just pass them on to someone in need.

He picked whitetails over mule deer for the first day of the 2-day youth season, so last week we headed out to a chunk of ground that routinely holds deer, and sometimes some pretty good bucks. The trek into the cover was great, with some tutorials on crossing fences, staying quiet, and muzzle control. The wind was right, but I showed him how to check it and what to do if it switched. We used his new rangefinder to range various distances where we were likely to see deer. We talked about deer behavior, and their habits of bedding in the daytime and coming out of cover to feed in the evening.

And then, right on time, deer started feeding out of cover. We looked over a couple little bucks, and then it occurred to me: what was he looking for? A fat doe for the freezer? A young starter buck? An ear-wide 4-point fed out of a line of trees. How about him? I asked.

“I’m sorta waiting for a 6×6,” my apprentice said. I may have snorted. “So am I!” I returned. We watched a number of other deer, including some smaller bucks, mostly within range. Then it was time to go.

On the way out of the field, keeping our profiles low and our scent blowing away from the herd so we wouldn’t ruin the spot, I thought about what had just happened. Are my expectations unnaturally low? Or are his perversely high? I don’t know, but while we both enjoyed the experience, I also wondered if he was setting himself up for the sort of disappointment that older, more experienced hunters need years to put in context. Would his inability to achieve his goal turn him off to hunting in a few more years?

I still don’t have an answer, but my apprentice went out with another neighbor the next day. They chased mule deer.

“Did you fill your tag?” I asked him. “No. We saw some good ones, but nothing I wanted to shoot.”

I think he’ll be just fine. He has the right gear. The right advisors. The right places to hunt. My only hope is that he also allows himself to immerse himself in the experience without being so hung up on the outcome.

McKean Minute: Get Ready for the Greatest Month

Sure, September is cool. There’s the dove opener, and screaming bull elk. There are the month’s archery deer seasons that open like so many fortune cookies. Some folks have early waterfowl opportunities. If September has a mascot, it’s the grouse.

But the greatest of all months is October. In my country, pheasant opener is fast approaching, and antelope rifle seasons are close behind. Montana’s rifle deer season opens late in the month, but it’s easy to be distracted by the migrating waterfowl that are pouring south.

The greatest attribute of the month may be its killing cold, frosts that should finally end the tyranny of mosquitoes that make it either impossible or extremely uncomfortable to spend an evening in a deer stand or kicking around for prairie or forest grouse. With frosts also come the turning of leaves, and the quintessential sight of October might be a yellowing leaf fluttering down on a buck coming into range, or a rooster rocketing out of curing cover.

We might see our first snowfall. Did I mention all those geese and ducks, cupping onto ponds and lakes that will be frozen in another few weeks? Brown trout and brookies are running, and any fish with an appetite and a sense of the future is feeding aggressively as the water cools.

Go head, tell me why October is so wonderful in your area. Or, if you dare, tell me how wrong I am, and why February is your most favorite of all the months.

McKean Minute: The Long Run

Thirty-five years ago this month, I was a college freshman, a farm kid who had no business attending the liberal arts college where I ended up. I hadn’t been assigned a single paper in my small high school, and based on the amount of writing that confronted me, I was sure I’d flunk after my first college semester.

Another thing I had never experienced at my high school: cross country. I had run track fairly successfully, but we didn’t have cross country at my school, which is why I had no expectation that I’d run in college.

But if you’re a runner, you run, and on my first days on campus, I spotted several runners who looked a lot like me: skinny and scared. On a whim on a sunny September afternoon—largely because I was procrastinating over a late paper—I decided to join them, which is how I became a college cross country runner for the next four years. My teammates became my best friends, then and—a full generation later—now.

But the glue that held everything together, from the team to my sanity, was my cross country coach, Will Freeman. My freshman year was his first year of coaching the team. Will was a lot like me – a country kid who didn’t take the indulgences of academia too seriously. He had a gravitational pull on me that told me that no matter how hard the classes got, no matter how long the papers, or how stressful college can be, he’d be there every day, a whistle in his mouth and a stopwatch around his neck, encouraging me to run just a little faster.

I’ve long since left college and made my way in the world. I still run. I still am connected to my college teammates. Will is still there, still coaching another round of skinny, scared college kids. But this is his last season. He announced this summer that he’s retiring from coaching, and last weekend 35 years of runners converged on our alma mater to celebrate his career and his impact on us.

I ran the alumni race, not because I wanted to—five miles at collegiate race pace is not comfortable—but because I wanted to run for Will one last time. It occurred to me, somewhere between miles 3 and 4, that I’ve always run for Will. I wear a whistle and a stopwatch and coach my own teams because of Will.

You can’t know these things, but I hope some of the skinny, scared kids I encourage to run just a little faster will look back with fondness on their experiences, and realize they also run for Will.

McKean Minute: Beyond Sportsman – Terms That Describe All of Us

I’m not especially “woke” in the contemporary term, meaning hyper-aware of the inequities of our culture. But I’d like to think that I’m sensitive to the things that divide us, and more interested in working on ways to unite Americans rather than ways that segment and differentiate us.

As a writer, I’m also aware of the power of language to perpetuate divisions and either include or exclude people based on terms. Take the gender-specific term “man.” As in, “anchorman,” or “midshipman,” terms that originated around the reality that only men were involved in the tasks described. That’s happily not the case any longer, but our terms take time to catch up with the times.

Which is why I think it’s time to rethink our use of the term “sportsman” to describe hunters, anglers, and other members of this outdoor-loving tribe to which I happily belong. I have a teenaged daughter who is every bit as capable in the field as any adult man I know, and while she’s never once balked at or mentioned that the term “sportsman” excludes her, as her father, I don’t think it describes her adequately. Several of my buddies in my hometown started a conservation organization a couple years back. We call ourselves “Hi-Line Sportsmen,” but the most active and capable members of the club are women, and I don’t want our name to give the idea to a girl or woman that they’re not welcome to join us.

The origins of the term “sportsman” go back to the early 1700s, as the notion of hunting and fishing for recreation and enjoyment started to displace the idea of both activities as ways to prevent starvation. And the code of conduct that governed the activities gave rise to another term: “sportsmanship.”

I’d hate to abandon that notion that hunting and fishing has a higher calling, but I’m casting about, as it were, for another term to describe all of us as well as what we do. I suppose we could settle on the unsatisfyingly bland term “sportsperson,” but that seems lazy to me. Or maybe we’re “sports,” but that term seems sort of flimsy and frivolous and doesn’t get at the live-taking (and life-giving) gravity of what we do.

I’m gravitating to the term “chaser,” which borrows from an even older tradition, a gender-neutral Middle English word that describes our pursuit of wild animals, and echoes the French term for hunter: “chasseur.” It doesn’t quite describe our pursuit of fish, but it gets closer than another candidate: “stalker.”

Or maybe we look for a term that describes where we exercise our inclination to hunt and fish: outside.

Are we “outies,” like a collective belly button? Or are we “outsters,” which might also describe a fringe political party?

I’d love to hear from you. Can you propose a term that is inclusive, descriptive, and durable enough to last longer than this current political moment?

McKean Minute: The Secret Language of Sportsfolk

I have been trying to take a day off to fish all summer, and despite the season and the reason, I haven’t either made or found the time to go nearly as often as I want.

That changed this week. My buddy Joe called to say that conditions looked good tomorrow, and could I join him on our local walleye lake, Fort Peck Reservoir. I could have found good reasons to decline, but on both cellular and psychic levels, I needed a day of fishing, so I accepted.

Joe is a long-time walleye and northern pike predator, and he spends more days on the water, in all seasons, than he would admit to folks outside our circle. But for those inside the circle, he’s the guy you want to fish with. He knows the spots to fish and the gear to use, and he’s pretty good company, besides.

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McKean Minute: The Power of Persistence

“Without frequent contact, most mentored hunts end up being just guided trips.”

That’s the downbeat assessment of one of my friends and partners in what’s slowly emerging as a national movement to introduce more beginning hunters to the outdoors and the world of self-sufficient foraging.

She’s both right and correct. She’s right in the sense that many of us who extend a hand to a beginner base the experience around an outing – a hunt. We hope to be successful, in order to set the hook. It’s important to be successful – few people want to spend uncomfortable hours or days in the company of a new companion only to return home empty-handed. So we mentors stack the decks in favor of success.

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McKean Minute: Kentucky Windage, Gun Safety, and ‘Caddyshack’

Much of what I know about guns I learned as a Missouri farmkid, shooting big grasshoppers with BB guns, plinking with .22 rifles, and working my way up to quail, squirrels, and eventually deer.

Everything I know about “Kentucky windage,” or holding over a distant target with a duplex reticle, I learned back then and there, behind a 4-power Bushnell Banner scope mounted to my Savage 99 in .243 Win. My early targets were 400 to 500 yards distant.

They were moving.

They were small.

They were muskrats swimming on the surface of our pond in the pasture below our farmhouse. My dad was a mild-mannered farmer who became agitated only at insurance salesmen, the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, and balky calves. But any time he saw the V-wake of a muskrat on that pond, he yelled for me to grab my rifle and “go kill that SOB!”

I can’t tell you how many hundreds of 100-grain bullets I fired at those muskrats, my rifle stabilized on top of a wooden fencepost. Neither can I tell you how many of the little rat-tailed varmints I hit, because the ferocious eruption of dirty pondwater water when my bullet hit disguised the outcome of the shot. But I got pretty good at getting close—the very definition of riflescope holdover—thanks to what seemed like a never-ending population of muskrats.

Looking back on it from 40 years, I wonder what happened to all those bullets that ricocheted off the pond’s surface. One of the tenants of firearms safety, of course, is to absolutely not do what I did back then, shoot at water, because of the danger of a bullet unintentionally careening toward people, or barns, or cattle or any number of other non-targets.

I also wonder about my dad’s allowance for this conduct. He was a stickler for almost every other gun-safety commandment. But somehow, they all went out the window when it came to muskrats. Bill Murray, who plays Carl Spackler in the movie “Caddyshack” might have been channeling my dad (and excusing my water-shooting behavior) when he said of gophers, “To kill, you must know your enemy, an in this case my enemy is a varmint. And a varmint will never quit – ever. They’re like the Viet Cong – Varmint Cong. So you have to fall back on superior intelligence and superior firepower. And that’s all she wrote.”

McKean Minute: The Butcher Bird and My Jerky

I was just turning a batch of elk jerky in my smoker, flipping each succulent strip in order to dry uniformly, when I noticed movement over my shoulder.

I keep my Camp Chef in the barn, where its beautiful work won’t stink up my house or deck. When I was a kid, our only source of heat was a wood-burning stove, and all my clothes smelled like wood smoke. I didn’t think anything of it when I was younger, but when I was in 8th grade, a girl told me I smelled like bacon. The way she said it made me think she didn’t like bacon. I’ve been sensitive about the topic ever sense. Hence, the smoker in the barn.

It turns out the movement I saw was the swoop of a bird, and as I emerged from the barn, I studied the critter. It was a northern shrike, a blocky grey-and-black bird about the size of a robin, perched on the tongue of an idle disc. We don’t see shrikes very often, so I paid special attention to this specimen, its curved beak and black-streaked head looking coolly around. Like a robin, shrikes are classified as songbirds, but they behave more like raptors. They hunt insects like grasshoppers or even small mammals and birds, often flushing them out of hiding by flapping their wings just above the ground.

But shrikes are sometimes called “butcher birds” for another curious carnivorous habit. They will impale their prey on thorns of trees or the barbs of wire fences, saving them in what biologists call their “pantries” until they’re ready to consume them. Some ornithologists think that female shrikes select mates based on the size and variety of his pantry. Apparently, these girl shrikes don’t care if their mates smell like meat.

I returned to my jerky, puttering in the plumes of rich smoke, preparing snacks that I’d add to my pantry and feed my family all week long. When I emerged from the barn, the shrike was gone.