By Rick Fowler
(Editor’s note: Please enjoy this unedited article from GRAND reader, Rick Fowler. It brought back some wonderful memories of my grandfather, who was an avid deer and grouse hunter in Upstate New York. It may bring some wonderful memories back for you as well. If so, please let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org)
The editors of the OUTDOORSMAN’S HANDBOOK, published in 1920, included in their introduction, “Our readers will find this book a handy reference manual covering a wide and complete range of the techniques of outdoor life. Indeed, one that they will refer to constantly to refresh the memory or to learn the gist of some new branch of the great game not taken up before.” I would add an addendum to this handbook: Take the time to listen to those who have had a wide and complete range of outdoor experiences, be it fathers or grandfathers. These are living libraries full of information that need to be tapped before its too late.
“I remember…” These two words can often open a historical glimpse into the past that is not always in books and magazines. For hunters and anglers these words represent a first person account of what it was like to harvest game and land fish back in the decades before high-tech gear and the seemingly endless drive to show off the “biggest” came into vogue. One such living library is 90 year-old Joe Zofchak. He remembers and in his eight decades of enjoying the outdoors has compiled volumes of fishing and hunting memories.
Joe hunted white tails for 70 plus years between 1939 and 1944 until he entered the service during WWII, and then resumed his hunting exploits from 1946 until 2012. In those seven decades of hunting he recalls, “Yeah, I got a few bucks. Nothing too big! In fact I shot more does than bucks back then. To me it was more about what was happening around me in the woods then getting a deer. People don’t realize just how busy the woods are. It’s a show in itself.”
He remembers his first Michigan U.P. deer camp vividly. “We had been invited up to a friend of one of my brother’s camp near Munising after the war around 1946. There were 12 of us, my dad, five of my brothers and a few cousins. We lugged up two large military tents. One was used for the kitchen and supplies while the other was use for sleeping. We spent a week there and got a few deer. One thing I clearly remember was partridge. Dozens of them surrounding our blinds every day. You don’t see pats like that today.”
Joe can also recall fishing camps too. “I remember ice fish camp at HigginsLake (Michigan) in the late 40’s early 50’s. There were usually 12 of us here also. Most were fishing 2 tip ups apiece but some were jigging for walleye and pike inside the make shift shelter we would erect by backing two vehicles close together and then using one of the tents we use for deer camp to connect them. It was toasty in there once the little stoves were lit. Yeah, we would even eat out there. We always caught a lot of fish during those trips especially on our home made tip ups. My brother John made a pattern from a commercial tip up and then we formed our own out of oak, made the reels out of plastic, and tied them together using undergarment material from women’s corset’s. They were higher than normal so you could see them from a distance.”
Indeed Joe and his brother’s were very creative and handy. In fact they made numerous lures especially for their trips to Canada of which there were many-30 straight years to be exact. “We would take a group to a resort near Armstrong, Ontario every late spring or early summer. Sometimes there would be more then 10 of us and sometimes less. I would make my own cowbells because I knew we were going after lake trout. My brother’s and I would also make daredevil like lures and spoons made out of stainless steel and copper. If we knew we were just going after walleye we would bring out the crawler harnesses we had made a couple of weeks before our trip. Those were great adventures and we caught plenty of fish.”
He also remembers spearing whitefish on HigginsLake during the late 40’s through the early 60’s. We had 14 foot boats with a small H.P. motor, 3 guys in the boat, a home made lighting system and our own crafted spears. The guy in front readied the lights as an attractant (he would submerge them) and also did the spearing. The guy in the middle was directing our route and the guy in back operated the engine. We limited out every time.”
Joe, his brothers and other family members did much of their deer hunting around the Grayling (Michigan) area. He had purchased a plot of land in the HigginsLake area before his enlistment in the navy and after returning from the war, a cabin took shape on the purchased lot. He remembers many years setting up blinds near clearings formed by oil companies in the CrawfordCounty area. “They would leave the knots from trees they felled all over the place to make room for their rigs so we would pick them up, put them in 55 gallon barrels, light them and that would be our heat in our little camp. They would burn for hours.”
During one camp they glassed over a 100 deer in a nearby ridge one early morning. “It was a couple of days before the opener so we thought this could be a good sign. We didn’t see one set of horns in all those deer. I don’t think any of us got a deer that year. Funny huh!” He remembers another camp and a freak snowstorm that left two feet of snow on the ground. “I told myself it was going to be a long day if I shot a deer a long way from camp with all this snow. Then out of nowhere a nice doe came out the cedars giving me a shot. Lo and behold this deer after being shot started to run toward me. In fact it came within 10 feet of me then went over. I didn’t have to work too hard to get that deer out of there after all.”
There is a common connection between Joe and his exploits. That is family. “All of my hunting and fishing trips were family oriented. There were always brothers, cousins, and nephews along for the ride. To me it was more about having a good time then having a good harvest.” Today most of Joe’s grandkids appreciate what the outdoors offers too. A few bird hunt, all of them enjoy fishing and the camps and stories that accompany such outings. Joe has been to our U.P. cottage the past two years for grouse hunting. He doesn’t trek the woods anymore but enjoys the two-track roads the group travels on and the chance to share his expertise with his son, his grandchildren, son-in-law and friends.
Joe still enjoys sitting around a campfire and “chewing the fat” as he says. He can remember duck and pheasant hunting in Genesee County, his first gun and his last hunt as if it were days ago, around the glow of a late night fire. Though many of his friends and relatives have passed his tales of being in the forest and on the water with them are distinctly vibrant. In my nearly 30 years of being his son-in-law I have never grown tired of his listening to his tales.
He has offered the following bit of wisdom many times over during those 3 decades. “Take kids fishing and hunting. Get them out into the woods. Enjoy everything that’s out there.” For those of us who have a passion for hunting and fishing and for those of us who have a passion to pass on our love of the outdoors to our children, truly words to REMEMBER!
It’s not always books off the shelves we learn from. Sometimes it’s living libraries.